Sisi says “let them eat leaves” as food crisis sharpens class lines in Egypt

The war in Ukraine, rising oil prices and spiralling global inflation have fuelled food scarcity and surges in the price of basic goods in Egypt. Most worrying among the goods affected is bread, which makes up almost 40 percent of the average Egyptian’s diet. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has suggested that poor people survive by eating leaves. The absurd and callous response of the ruling class to the food crisis reflects the dead-end of the capitalist system, and places class struggle firmly on the order of the day.

Egypt is facing one of the worst food crises in its modern history, without access to the majority of its wheat supply due to the war in Ukraine and Western sanctions on Russia. Last year, Russia and Ukraine accounted for 80 percent of wheat supplies in Egypt – the biggest importer of wheat in the world. This situation has had a devastating effect on the country’s subsidised bread programme, which caters for around 70 million people.

At the same time, the Egyptian state’s foreign currency reserves have fallen to their lowest levels since 2017. Inflation soared to 14.5 percent in May, following price increases globally and the partial flotation of the Egyptian pound (EGP) in March. Inflation was roughly 5 percent before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, meaning that in real terms Egyptians have lost a tenth of their incomes in a matter of months.

Mostafa Madbouly Image المكتب الاعلامي لرئيس الوزراءAccording to Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly, the Egyptian government has three months of wheat reserves remaining / Image: المكتب الاعلامي لرئيس الوزراء

Even these numbers mask the severity of the situation for ordinary people. “I don’t know what inflation means exactly, but prices have increased by at least 20-30 percent, and sometimes 50 percent,” Cairene government employee Elham Mohamed told the Middle East Institute back in April. “It can’t be only 12 percent.” Her salary of 3,000 EGP, typical of a public sector worker, was worth $192 a month earlier. Now it is worth $160. She described how her family was unable to afford traditional Ramadan sweets during the most important celebration of the year.

At El-Sayeda Zeinab market in a working-class area of Egypt’s capital, thousands of locals buy their baladi bread, the country’s most basic food stuff, for next-to-no money. One day in May, a riot nearly broke out when suddenly there was no baladi to be found. “You should have seen the fight,” said one bakery worker, “it was like a hunger crisis.” Elsewhere, there have been reports of a piece of bread going for as much as 8 EGP – roughly 10 times the typical price and an unsustainable amount for poor workers, their families and the unemployed.

And things are only going to get worse. According to Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly, the Egyptian government has three months of wheat reserves remaining. And with its main sources of those reserves cut off, what happens when they run out? Ministers are frantically scrambling to make a deal with another potential wheat supplier – be it Mexico or Pakistan. They are trying to get around the Indian government’s recently imposed ban on wheat exports by offering them cut-price supplies of fertiliser.

Whichever way they turn, they’ll find another government sitting across the negotiating table facing the same problems of inflation and shortages, and looking to make the most of Egypt’s desperate situation. At best, avoiding a total collapse in wheat supplies will mean eating further into foreign currency reserves and increasing the national debt. Before any new measures are taken into account, the Egyptian state is already looking at debt service payments of $25-30bn over the next three years.  In a worsening scenario, the government will pay for extra measures with additional cutbacks to subsidies on bread, fuel and other essentials and massive sell-offs of state assets. These actions would be wholly consistent with the past decade of the Sisi regime.

Workers and poor footing the bill

Finance Minister Mohamed Maait has already spoken about “rationalising” the Egyptian government’s $3bn annual bread subsidies, which was on the table even before war broke out in Ukraine. “So as long as the cost of bread and the cost of producing bread increases,” he says, “so the cost of subsidy on the budget increases… It cannot go like that.” Cutting the bread subsidy further will leave millions across Egypt confronted with the immediate prospect of starvation.

Ukraine War Image Ministry of Defense of UkraineThe Russia-Ukraine war has exacerbated the hunger crisis in Egypt / Image: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine

Maait himself seemed to be aware of this when he spoke at the UN in May of those around the world being at risk of death as a result of a hunger crisis triggered by the Russia-Ukraine war. Yet his response to this danger shows that Egyptian capitalism has no solutions. Having abandoned those on the brink of starvation, Maait is grovelling at the feet of the imperialist powers. The Egyptian government has again had to go cap-in-hand to the IMF begging for a bail out, for the third time in six years. The negotiation of a new loan is still ongoing, with the IMF insisting that the government identifies sectors of the economy which it will leave completely – i.e. privatise. For its part, the government has already confirmed plans to sell off state assets and military-owned companies to help balance its books.

A ‘State Ownership Policy Document’ they published in May outlines a three-year plan for state withdrawal from the majority of activity in most sectors of the economy, including agriculture, trade, industry, hospitality, food, chemicals and textiles. In recent weeks, the running of state-owned slaughterhouses has been contracted out to private companies. In addition, the first electric cars to be manufactured in Egypt will now be produced by the private sector, not the state-owned Nasr Automotives as originally planned.

Meanwhile, Gulf countries have pledged $22bn of financial aid to Egypt over the coming period, including $3bn from Saudi Arabia to cover wheat imports. This ‘aid’ ties the Egyptian state into more debt repayments with interest down the line, and no doubt gives big business interests in those countries a place at the front of the queue when great chunks of state assets are auctioned off.

Enough is enough

Even more than before, virtually all sectors of the economy will soon be directly beholden to the profiteering of private interests. Nothing in Egypt is safe from big business and its aim of maximising profits above all else. The stripping of state assets and the slashing of subsidies will have catastrophic social consequences, only exacerbating the issues of poverty, low wages and high living costs, which the current regime has utterly failed to resolve.

Egypt Revolution 2011 Image MonaBread was a fundamental question from the very beginning of the Egyptian Revolution in 2011 / Image: Mona

The Egyptian working class and poor are already being pushed far beyond their means, and with this crisis only set to deepen they will be pushed even further. It is only a matter of time until they reach breaking point.

Skirmishes at El-Sayeda Zeinab market on days when no bread is available raise the spectre of 1977, when hundreds of thousands of urban poor took part in a spontaneous uprising over the removal of food subsidies according to IMF diktats. They also evoke memories of the bread riots of 2017, when thousands protested cuts to bread subsidies by setting up roadblocks across major cities and storming local goods administration buildings. Let us not forget that bread prices were a major factor in the 14-million-strong uprising against the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013.

More serious strategists of capital in Egypt and internationally will be watching the situation nervously. If the Sisi regime does not take decisive measures to abate the increasingly desperate conditions the majority of Egyptians are facing, they will have no choice but to get to their feet once more.

Ruling class arrogance

The man himself, though, can’t help but pour fuel on the fire. In typically hubristic fashion, demonstrating nothing but utter contempt for the Egyptian people, he has suggested that those struggling to feed themselves and their families shouldn’t complain, but instead sate their hunger with leaves. This is a considerable downgrade from Marie Antoinette’s famously callous call for the starving French masses in the 18th century, also suffering from a shortage of bread, to instead “eat cake”.

Marie Antoinette Image Yann CaradecSisi's comments bring to mind Marie Antoinette's call for the french masses to "eat cake" / Image: Yann Caradec

Sisi said he is “not worried that someone will say that a kilo of okra costs 100 Egyptian pounds because Egyptians are aware that the Companions of the Prophet were trapped with the Messenger in the outskirts of Makkah for three years until they ate leaves. They did not ask the Messenger for food or for the earth to explode from beneath them [with riches].”

This is a man who has had several palaces built and refurbished for himself, with public funds during his presidency, including, it emerged in a video in late 2020, having one fitted with living quarters for his pet dog.

And it’s not just Sisi. Other key figures from the ruling elite have piled in to encourage ordinary Egyptians to be more frugal. Amr Adib, the top-rated news show host in Egypt, has suggested that people stop buying organic food items since they are more expensive, and instead withhold their money from supermarkets to force them to adopt lower prices. Apart from demonstrating a failure to understand rudimentary economics, such talk is particularly insulting coming from a man who is himself worth $42 million.

These disgusting creatures representing a degenerate and incompetent regime bring to mind the Russian aristocrats propping up Tsar Nicholas II’s rule during its final months, who held lavish parties in full view of the public while sending workers to die in the great slaughter of World War One. The brazen arrogance of Sisi, Adib and others will only encourage the Egyptian masses to give them their comeuppance sooner rather than later.

National dialogue or class struggle?

Despite his disregard for the desperate poverty and food shortages confronting millions of Egyptians, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi is not completely blind to the fact that a new wave of social crisis is brewing. Nor is he deaf to the existential threat this crisis poses to his regime. That is why, at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, he announced the commencement of a “national dialogue”.

Hamdeen Sabahi Image Hossam el HamalawyLeft opposition leader Hamdeen Sabahi's call for "national conciliation" was a friendly warning to the ruling class /Image: Hossam el Hamalawy

As yet, no one is exactly clear on what this means in practice. However, since it was announced, at least 25 high-profile political prisoners have been released with a pardon. Moreover, opposition parties, including the Social-Democratic Party and the Socialist Party, as well as trade unions and labour leaders, have been invited to put forward their vision for the dialogue. They have done so, stating seven conditions for the dialogue itself, along with the following policy demands:

  • The state and opposition must have equal representation and standing in the national dialogue.
  • A unified labour law that “includes all categories of the working class in a manner that adheres to the principles stipulated in the Egyptian Constitution”.
  • The need to immediately halt the policy of liquidating public companies and transferring public utilities and services to the private sector.
  • The need to amend the trade unions law in line with the standards approved by the International Labour Organization conventions signed by Egypt, in addition to stopping all forms of administrative interference in union affairs. 
  • Increasing Takaful wa Karama (‘solidarity and dignity’) social aid payments.
  • The release of all prisoners of conscience, including those imprisoned for defending their livelihoods, in addition to halting the use of remand detention as punishment for workers defending their rights against employers.
  • Amending the social insurance law, including setting a transitional period for implementing the law of no less than five years and addressing problems with early retirees’ pensions, workers’ rights and insurance in informal employment.

Hamdeen Sabbahi, a left Nasserite opposition leader who placed first among voters in major cities and industrial areas in the 2012 presidential election, recently made an appearance on television for the first time in six years. It is worth remembering that Sabbahi betrayed the Egyptian Revolution and fell into line behind Sisi in 2013, after he and others failed to build an independent working class opposition movement.

He did, though, raise some interesting points in his interview, including a warning aimed directly at Sisi: “Staying in power is conditioned on popular approval.” He also called for the release of all non-violent political prisoners and stated that the poor should not be made to pay for the current economic crisis.

Nevertheless, he ultimately struck a conciliatory tone towards the regime, literally calling for “national conciliation” (read: class collaboration) and likening opposition parties to car headlights showing the regime in the driving seat the way forward. His demagogic points about popular approval, democratic rights and who is paying for the crisis were, if anything, friendly pieces of advice to the ruling class about keeping a handle on the situation.

Unquestionably, Sabbahi is still a figure that commands a great deal of authority amongst the Egyptian masses. He has, then, done the ruling class a double service. Firstly, by appearing on one of the biggest news shows in Egypt to claim that the role of the opposition is to subordinate itself to the regime (just as he himself did in 2012-13). And, secondly, by speaking to the regime in a friendly, supportive way in full view of millions of people he should be galvanising into opposing it.

The real purpose of the regime allowing Sabbahi and other labour leaders and organisations to air their views, alongside the release of political prisoners, is to open a safety valve and release some of the pressure building up under the surface in society. Sabbahi’s platitudes and the demands of labour organisations within the scope of this ‘national dialogue’ – the terms of which are dictated by the regime – give the impression that the voices of the masses are heard.

Meanwhile, in reality, nothing changes. The workers and poor are still paying for the crisis, and the regime won’t budge an inch in the direction of affording more general democratic rights.

On his own TV show, Amr Adib praised Sabbahi’s interview as “a model of civil dialogue”. Quite the plaudit from one of the regime’s biggest supporters and a sworn enemy of the working class. “Sabahi spoke during the interview about his vision for the national dialogue and the release of prisoners of conscience,” Adib added, “and nothing [bad] happened. Words or opinions were never a threat to the state. What should prevent every thinker in this country from expressing their opinion?” From the opposite class perspective to our own, he has hit the nail on the head. The interviewer called in to Adib’s show to explain that because Sabbahi is a “representative of the opposition” his “appearance on TV was necessary.” Indeed: it is necessary for the ruling class to uphold the cosmetic appearance of a functioning democracy that promotes the interests of ordinary Egyptians.

In reality, Sisi and the regime are on the defensive. The ‘national dialogue’ and all the grandstanding it entails is a clear sign that the heat of class struggle which has been simmering away under the surface for almost a decade is starting to burn through. Anger in the streets is palpable. There is genuine fear motivating the actions of the ruling class. That is why it is precisely the time for workers’ leaders to go on the offensive. It is certainly not the time for conciliatory remarks and submitting suggestions to the regime without any means of leveraging them as demands. Conciliation with the regime serves to blunt class lines just as they are being sharpened.

Marxists support the social and democratic demands of the opposition parties and labour organisations, however limited and insufficient they are. The seven policy demands listed above would undoubtedly represent steps forward for the masses given their current situation. But not one of even these limited suggestions will be approved by the regime. Their approval would be unacceptable to the government’s business partners and creditors at home and abroad. What’s more, accepting them would open the floodgates: emboldening workers to aim their sights higher.

Any demands of this nature cannot be achieved without being fought for, through the struggle of the working class. This struggle should be the focus of opposition leaders, not a ‘national dialogue’. They should be calling for the organised action of workers, and taking a lead with this action themselves.

Sabbahi commented in his interview that 25 January and 30 June revolutionary movements “did not achieve their goals due to a lack of organisation”. Well, whose fault is that? Instead of prostrating themselves before the regime, it is time the leadership of the Egyptian working class practised what they preach and fought for the people they are supposed to represent, against the bosses and their stooges in power.

Despite the weakness and craven opportunism of the opposition leadership, explosive class battles lie ahead for Egypt. The pressure of extreme hardship being imposed on the masses by the defenders of capitalism nationally and internationally will be the deciding factor. The need to prepare a revolutionary leadership capable of leading the masses into battle rather than collaborating with the regime has never been more urgent.

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