Photo Credit: Voice of America News
By Katie Hillegass, Columnist
A small protest in Cairo earlier this month over a shortage of subsidized baby formula exemplifies the obstacles piling up on Egypt’s road to recovery from years of political and economic turmoil. On 1 September, riot police dispersed dozens of mothers and their babies protesting in front of a Ministry of Health building in response to a recent 40% price surge in a can of formula.[i] The incident, a mere blip in the news cycle, nevertheless serves as a microcosm of a plethora of issues plaguing the Egyptian people under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s administration: an economy continuing to spiral out of control, an over-reaching military, press censorship, conspiracy theories against the West, and rising paranoia over the next round of mass protests.
The protests came in the wake of a $12 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan negotiated earlier in August. The loan forces Egypt to implement a series of austerity measures, including subsidy reform to stop the hemorrhaging of its foreign currency reserves and the value of the Egyptian pound against the dollar. Due to political instability, terrorism, and human rights allegations, tourist arrivals remain down 60% from pre-revolution levels, and the fixed exchange rate has further contributed to a shortage of foreign reserves.[ii] With double-digit inflation and over 12% unemployment (up to 40% among young people), investors have become wary that al-Sisi may not have the political capital to implement necessary reforms.[iii]
Beyond economic concerns, the baby food incident subtly underscores the pervasiveness of the military in all aspects of Egyptian life. In response to the shortage, the Egyptian Army announced it would import millions of cans of formula to sell at discounted rates.[iv] Although the Egyptian Armed Forces have been involved in business since the Nasser-era, a report from the Carnegie Middle East Center claims they now serve as “the ultimate arbiter of Egypt’s economic and political system.”[v] Egyptians have taken to social media to satirize this encroachment of the military, not just into the baby formula market, but into advising mothers on breast-feeding.[vi] According to Al-Jazeera, the backlash is as much about the initial shortage of formula as it is about bringing in the Army to fix it. [vii]
One of the most public examples of this criticism comes from Dr. Bassem Youssef, who previously hosted a Daily Show-esque program in Egypt called ‘al-Bernameg’, until it was cancelled in 2014 following criticisms of the al-Sisi administration. Youssef accused the Army of corrupt practices, including the creation of a monopoly on the formula; he subsequently issued a pseudo-apology following a lawsuit issued against him in Egypt.[viii] The lawsuit cites an international conspiracy designed to discredit the Egyptian Army, an unsubstantiated claim the Egyptian state routinely invokes to shift blame away from internal domestic politics.[ix]
The protests over baby formula and the response of the state serve to illustrate the tenuousness of the security situation in Egypt. Although these latest protests were nowhere near the scale of the 1977 bread riots against Sadat, or the 2011 and 2013 revolutions which brought down both the Mubarak and Morsi regimes, Egyptians’ propensity for large-scale demonstrations poses a looming threat to al-Sisi’s reign in power. At a time when Washington has dwindling influence in Cairo due to the Gulf States new sponsorship as Egypt’s top investors, the United States has limited leverage to curb the militarization of al-Sisi’s administration. [x] Washington should continue to encourage more progressive reforms, but there is little incentive to hold back any of the $1.5 billion in military aid as long as Egypt continues to uphold its obligations along the Israeli border and contain the terrorist threat within the Sinai Peninsula. While al-Sisi may be able to quell these protesting mothers for now, if the economic situation deteriorates further as a result of austerity measures, the world may once again witness the power of the Egyptian street.
[i] Michael, Maggie, “Egyptian moms protest shortages of subsidized baby formula,” Washington Post, September 1, 2016, accessed September 13, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/egyptian-moms-protest-shortages-of-subsidized-baby-formula/2016/09/01/f16b288e-704d-11e6-993f-73c693a89820_story.html.
[ii] “Egypt Tourist Arrivals,” Trading Economics, accessed September 13, 2016, http://www.tradingeconomics.com/egypt/tourist-arrivals.
[iii] “State of Denial,” The Economist, August 6, 2016, accessed September 13, 2016, http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21703393-egypt-has-squandered-billions-dollars-aid-more-way-it.
[iv] El-Tablawy, Tarek, “When the Baby Milk Disappeared, Egypt Turned to the Military,” Bloomberg, September 8, 2016, accessed September 13, 2016, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-09-08/when-the-baby-milk-disappeared-egypt-turned-to-the-military.
[v] Marshall, Shana, “The Egyptian Armed Forces and the Remaking of an Economic Empire,” Carnegie Middle East Center, 2015, accessed September 12, 2016, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/egyptian_armed_forces.pdf, p.1.
[vi] Farid, Farid, “Egypt’s Military Got in a Fight over Baby Formula this Week, Motherboard, September 3, 2016, accessed September 13, 2016, http://motherboard.vice.com/read/egypts-military-baby-formula.
[viii] “Bassem Youssef faces backlash after insulting Armed Forces,” Egypt Daily News, September 4, 2016, accessed September 13, 2016, http://www.dailynewsegypt.com/2016/09/04/543705/.
[ix] Nosseir, Mohammed, “The Egyptian Conspiracy Theory Obsession,” Al-Arabiya, July 21, 2016, accessed September 13, 2016, http://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2016/07/21/The-Egyptian-conspiracy-theory-obsession.html.
[x] Marshall, Shana, “The Egyptian Armed Forces and The Remaking of an Economic Empire,” Carnegie Middle East Center, 2015, accessed on September 12, 2016, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/egyptian_armed_forces.pdf, p. 1.