Egyptian minister says government will not revive 1960s practice of setting food prices

Supply minister grilled by MPs in rare show of parliamentary scrutiny

A man looks at shelves holding food items in a Cairo supermarket. Reuters
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Egypt will not return to the 1960s socialist practice of putting controls on food prices despite their sharp rise over the past year, the cabinet minister in charge of food supplies told MPs on Tuesday.

The comments from Supply Minister Ali Muselhey came as most of Egypt's 104 million people are struggling to make ends meet in the face of an economic crisis that has led to a shortage of imported goods and caused inflation to rise to nearly 20 per cent.

The government has blamed the Russia-Ukraine war and the coronavirus pandemic for the crisis.

“From my position of responsibility, setting [food] prices is meaningless,” Mr Muselhey told MPs.

“We will not return to the 1960s and we will not revive the wartime experience of the late president Anwar Sadat. We are not at war.”

The minister's comments came after MPs voiced their displeasure over the poor quality and shrinking size of state-subsidised bread, a main staple for most Egyptians.

“There is nothing in the constitution or the law that regulates or provide for imposing prices for commodities,” he said.

A customer buying bread in Egypt. Bloomberg

Parliament is stacked with supporters of President Abdel Fattah El Sisi and currently chiefly operates as a rubber stamp chamber serving the government.

Tuesday's plenary session, however, was unusually lively, with MPs openly asking for the minister's resignation and berating him for his alleged inefficiency.

The MPs were so rowdy that at one point, Speaker Hanafy El Gibaly urged them to calm down.

“Why cannot you be as calm as I am? Say whatever you wish to say, but calmly,” he said.

The grilling of the minister took place against a backdrop of growing popular discontent. The government has devalued the local currency twice since March, triggering inflationary pressures that have hit food prices particularly hard.

Several MPs brought to the chamber the traditional flat loaves of subsidised bread and showed the minister photos of long queues outside bakeries.

“The policies adopted by your ministry will drive Egyptians to hunger. Do you want people to start stealing, begging and looting?” MP Zeinab Al Salaimy asked the minister.

Another MP, Olfat Al Mazlawy, said the minister was too focused on reducing the number of the food card holders entitled to a variety of state-subsidised goods.

“It is not feasible for you to continue to hold your post,” she said.

A farmer moves his rice harvest north of Cairo, Egypt. Reuters

More than 70 million Egyptians benefit from the food card system in which bread is the most important item.

However, there have been complaints in recent months that authorities are trying to bring down the cost of subsidies by reducing the size of bread or terminating thousands of cards on the grounds that their holders can afford free-market food prices.

Egypt is one of the world's largest importers of wheat, with Russia and Ukraine as its main suppliers.

The war in the Ukraine has led Egypt's wheat import bills to soar, placing additional pressure on its foreign currency reserves. The government has introduced measures to shield the most vulnerable Egyptians from the spike in prices.

Updated: January 03, 2023, 10:20 PM