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Poverty and anxiety over food prices play role in Egypt’s unrest

Yesterday, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak confirmed he would not be re-standing in elections due in September. Given the scale of protest in the country, Barack Obama responded by stressing an orderly transition “must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now”.

The US President added “all of us who are privileged to serve in positions of political power do so at the will of our people”. Western diplomats also now believe that any meaningful reform will only work if Mr Mubarak moves away from the helm. The European Union’s policy chief, Baroness Ashton, followed Mr Obama’s lead and called on Mr Mubarak to act “as quickly as possible”.

The Egyptian army has called on demonstrators to return home so the country can return to normal. But with the depth of feeling running through ordinary Egyptians, this call is unlikely to be heeded. Many young people taking part in the current demonstrations will settle for nothing less than democratic reform. They agree with opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei that the current “oppressive” and “authoritarian” regime must end. The Egyptian security forces are widely feared. Amnesty International (AI) has logged many cases of beatings and torture of citizens under arrest and the organization reported 20 deaths in 2008 from such treatment. In 2009, AI noted there was impunity “for most perpetrators….[with] police threatening victims with re-arrest or the arrest of relatives if they lodged complaints”.

But if Egyptians have lived with this kind of regime for many decades, why are ordinary people rising up against it now? Experts believe a number of factors are involved. One is that young people (aged 15-24) currently make up the largest group in Egypt’s population and they are ambitious and hungry for a better life. Literacy has risen sharply in recent decades (85 per cent of those aged 15-24 are literate) and with access to technology like the internet, this generation can read what is happening in places such as Tunisia and also see the wealthier lifestyles available in other countries.

For all Egypt’s economic growth and abundant natural resources, most Egyptians remain poor. Four-fifths of families exist on less than 250 dollars per month. And where incomes are lowest, people often live in squalid housing where there is no sewage system or rubbish disposal. According to the World Bank, an estimated 16 million Egyptians live in informal squatter-type settlements. And conditions for the poorest are becoming worse with overcrowding. Egypt’s population has doubled in size in just 30 years, from 44 million in 1980 to 84 million today, with everybody crammed into less than 5 per cent of the land. Last year, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) raised the alarm that the lives of many children in Egypt were getting worse. The organisation reported that 1.6 million under fives were experiencing some kind of health or food deprivation and around 5 million children were living in inadequate housing, without proper shelter, water and sanitation.

With low wages and increasing poverty, an added anxiety for many Egyptians over the last months has been the rise in food prices, specifically in wheat. Bread is the staple of Egyptian diet and with wheat prices having risen 50-70 per cent last year, the cost of buying loaves has been devastating for many families. Some experts therefore believe food shortages have played a pivotal role in the current unrest. Today, scenes in Cairo show anti-government demonstrators clashing with groups of pro-Mubarak supporters in hand-to-hand fighting which has left a number of people injured. But for many Egyptians, today’s fight isn’t so much about political change, but the growing struggle to feed their families and create a better life for their children.

By Laurinda Luffman for SOS Children