By Jackson Diehl
The Washington Post
Monday, April 21, 2008; Page A15
….For more than half a century, the Arab world’s most populous country has been run by a military-backed dictatorship that has supplied its millions of poor with subsidized bread. Consequently, Egypt consumes more bread per capita than France, and the only time the regime’s power was seriously challenged came in 1977, when Anwar Sadat‘s attempt to cut bread subsidies provoked bloody riots.
Thirty years later, Egypt still has subsidized bread but also a free market, which siphons much of the bread away through corruption. As global prices have soared in the past year, cheap bread has been disappearing from Egyptian shops, and free-market prices have risen 48 percent. The predictable result came on April 6, when workers at the country’s largest textile factory, in the city of Mahalla el-Kubra, attempted to strike, only to be blocked by a massive deployment of security forces. Angry crowds took to the streets for two days. Schools and shops were burned, a huge billboard of President Hosni Mubarak was torn down and at least two people were killed when police opened fire.
Mubarak responded to the trouble the way the regime always has. His prime minister and a host of other officials rushed to the smoldering city to purchase peace. The textile workers were promised a month’s bonus pay and new health-care facilities for their town. Mubarak ordered the army to begin baking and distributing more bread and lifted tariffs on some food imports. Meanwhile, his prosecutors brought charges against some 150 people blamed for the unrest….