Egyptian flatbread is a household staple across Egypt. Most Egyptians eat eish baladi, a wholewheat bread subsidized by the Egyptian government, multiple times a day. This bread is made from a mix of imported and domestically-grown wheat. The Russian-Ukrainian war has sparked concerns, owing to the important role these two countries have played in recent years as sources of wheat for Egypt. As the conflict becomes drawn out, what will be the ramifications for Egyptians’ ability to get their daily bread?
The Ukraine War, Grain Trade and Bread in Egypt by Jessica Barnes for MERIP
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 sent shockwaves through the global grain industry.
Russia is the world’s largest exporter of wheat and Ukraine the world’s fifth largest. As grain piled up in silos and cargo ships were halted at ports, alarm rippled through countries of the Middle East and North Africa that depend on wheat from this region. Although grain started to move again through the Black Sea after the United Nations and Turkey brokered an agreement in July, exports remain lower than before. With the grain deal set to expire next month and the ongoing conflict disrupting agricultural production in Ukraine, uncertainties remain about grain flows from this region.
For Egypt, this conflict has stirred deep anxieties. Egypt depends on imported wheat, and in recent years the vast majority of these imports have come from Russia and Ukraine. Imported grain provides half the flour that goes into a subsidized bread program which feeds some 72 million Egyptians on a daily basis. This staple is a cornerstone of Egyptian diets. It is readily available, filling and for as long as most can remember reliably cheap, having been subsidized since the 1940s.
To the governing regime, the maintenance of Egypt’s bread subsidy is a matter of national security. Egyptian politicians often invoke the possibility of a bread riot to explain why the provision of cheap bread is a “red line” that cannot be crossed. Frequently, they refer back to 1977 when, under pressure from the International Monetary Fund, the government sought to increase the price of fino, a soft white roll, which was at that time subsidized, resulting in two days of riots in which at least 77 people were killed and 214 wounded. Although this uprising was also a response to the government cutting other subsidies and freezing state wages (so-called bread riots are seldom about bread alone), the common reference to the bread riot illustrates how this staple food figures in the Egyptian political imagination.
Thus, when war in a country far removed disrupts the global grain supplies on which subsidized bread production depends, the specter of unrest looms. It takes 9 million tons of wheat a year to produce the five daily loaves to which most Egyptians are entitled. Small-scale, privately-owned bakeries are responsible for baking and selling this bread, but it is up to the government to ensure that these bakeries have sufficient flour and to make up the difference between the cost at which the bread is sold (5 piasters a loaf, or one fifth of one US cent) and the cost of production (currently estimated to be around 80 piasters).
The government buys some wheat from Egyptian farmers, most of whom grow this crop during winter months, producing a domestic harvest of 8.5 to 9 million tons. But even though the government is the sole purchaser—having prohibited exports and sale to the private sector— just a fraction of the harvest goes into subsidized bread; most farmers keep some of their wheat to make homemade bread. As a result, during the domestic procurement season, which lasts from April through June, the government typically buys only enough wheat to provide flour for about five months of subsidized bread production. The remainder, it has to import.
Long before the war on Ukraine, Egypt’s reliance on grain imports was a source of concern. Newspaper articles often comment on this vulnerability. “He who does not own his food does not own his freedom,” remarked one journalist, writing in Al-Wafd newspaper in 2016. It also comes up in everyday conversations. In 2015, when chatting with a woman in the village in western Fayoum where I was conducting fieldwork, she commented out of the blue, “You know, Egypt has to import wheat,” going on to suggest the country should reclaim more desert land for wheat cultivation, “so we’d produce enough wheat for ourselves.” Political leaders are always seeking to reassure the public that the nation’s wheat supply is secure, praising harvest totals, issuing press releases about every grain shipment that arrives at Egyptian ports and broadcasting the number of months worth of grain stored in silos. It is not surprising, therefore, that the outbreak of a conflict between two countries that have been major sources of imports for Egypt in recent years is provoking considerable anxiety, both for government officials and on the streets.
- Staple Security, Bread and Wheat in Egypt (Duke University Press) by Jessica Barnes – https://www.dukeupress.edu/staple-security
- For suggestions on complementary readings, films, and teaching activities, see Jessica Barnes’ teaching guide for Staple Security – https://www.dukeupress.edu/Assets/Downloads/staple-security-course-guide.pdf
- Anny Gaul’s Cooking Blog https://cookingwithgaul.com
- Jessica Barnes’ website – https://jessica-barnes.com