Page last updated at 10:39 GMT, Saturday, 3 May 2008 11:39 UK

Food price crisis bites in Egypt

By Heba Saleh
BBC News, Cairo

Liberal and left-wing political activists in Egypt have called for a general strike on Sunday to protest against rising prices. The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition force in the country, has endorsed the call.

Attempts at a similar strike last month drew a feeble response.

People queue to buy government-subsidised bread from a bakery in Cairo (Apr 2008)
Forty percent of all Egyptians live below or just above the poverty line

But there were two days of clashes between riot police and demonstrators in the town of Mahalla al-Kubra after the security services prevented textile workers from carrying out their separately planned industrial action.

President Hosni Mubarak has just offered public sector workers a 30% pay rise in an effort to quell such unrest fuelled by economic discontent.

But even so, activists insist the government is not doing enough to help its citizens cope with high prices.

"We're calling for salaries to match prices," said Ahmed Maher, the young engineer who launched the strike call.

"We want to stop businessmen in the ruling party controlling the cost of commodities. We also want social justice - the government needs to exert influence over prices."

Arrest fears

Mr Maher has been using the social networking site Facebook to promote his call. He spoke to the BBC on the phone because he is scared of being arrested.

Two other internet activists are currently in prison because of last month's strike.

"Many state security officers have contacted me, sometimes being threatening and sometimes asking me to just come and talk," Mr Maher said.

What's clear is that through security means or political means, [the authorities ] are preventing any initiative from the people
Madiha Doss,
university professor

"If we allow ourselves to fear them, we won't do anything. Then, I would consider myself a partner in the crimes taking place in Egypt."

Food prices have shot up dramatically in Egypt in recent months. Some basic foods have almost doubled.

A total of 40% of all Egyptians live below or just above the poverty line of $2 (1) a day, so life has become even more difficult for a huge section of the population.

"We used to eat meat or chicken twice a week, but now it's only once a week," said Hala Badawi, a housewife from Bashtil, a poor area on the outskirts of Cairo.

"Maybe if we were to go on strike they would bring down the prices. But people are cowards - they are afraid. They say it's none of my business, even when the price rises are affecting us all."

Popular anger

It is to pre-empt a boiling over of popular anger that Mr Mubarak has offered the 30% salary rise in his May Day speech to workers.

"I follow hour by hour [news] about the breadlines, the price increases, the concerns of Egyptian families in general and of the poor and those on limited incomes in particular," he said.

The government has also added some 15 million names to the list of people eligible to receive subsidised food.

Mr Mubarak said in his speech that he had asked ministers to look into the possibility of increasing the quantities of subsidised food offered to those on the list.

Egyptians were shocked by the riots in Mahalla last month, and the authorities are keen to ensure there will be no repeats.

Above all, they do not want the discontent to play into the hands of the opposition, whether Islamic or otherwise.

So much so that when a group of activist university professors tried to visit the injured in Mahalla, police held them up on the road for four hours, then sent them back to Cairo.

"What's clear is that through security means or political means, [the authorities ] are preventing any initiative from the people," said Madiha Doss, a professor who was in the group.

"I think they get even more nervous if they see that political activists are coming close to people who have social demands such as the workers."

There is little expectation here that Sunday's general strike will paralyse life in Egypt.

But with the harsh economic conditions and the availability of the internet as a tool in the hands of opponents, the Egyptian government must be concerned that one day they will be successful.

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