Egypt's Sisi scores early success with smart cards for bread subsidies

Mon Jan 12, 2015 8:04am EST
Email This Article |
Share This Article
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
| Print This Article | Single Page
[-] Text [+]

By Maggie Fick

CAIRO (Reuters) - The successful roll-out so far of a new "smart card" system to distribute subsidized bread has been a major achievement for Egypt's government, saving money while earning praise from families who no longer have to wake early to fight for loaves.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi appears to be succeeding where predecessors Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Mursi both failed in the delicate task of reforming a system that has drained the state's finances while angering the population.

While the government still has a long way to go to roll out the new system countrywide, success so far marks an important civilian achievement for the president, a former army chief mainly known for security issues, including a harsh crackdown against Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood followers.

"In the time of Mubarak and Mursi, there was no organization at bakeries. People fought each other. Now we all take what we need and there’s bread for all," said Bakhita Ibrahim, a Cairo resident at a bakery in the Sayyeda Zeinab district.

For generations, Egypt's government has fed the public by distributing subsidized flour to bakeries, which sell bread for as little as 5 piastres a loaf, less than one U.S. cent.

The system turned Egypt into the world's biggest importer of wheat, draining the government's foreign currency reserves: Cairo spends $3 billion a year on imports for it.

Nor has it pleased the public. Bread has been sold on a "first come, first served" basis, forcing people to queue up for hours in the morning to get it before it runs out, and sometimes leading to violence.

Those who arrive at the bakery early sometimes buy extra bread to feed to their livestock. Meanwhile, those who arrive too late can get nothing. And bakers are widely accused of siphoning off flour to sell on the black market, profiting while running up the government's bills.   Continued...

A woman walks away after buying bread at a bakery in Cairo, January 8, 2015. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany