Street Food

Feeding unrest in Cairo: The politics of bread

A look at the ancient roots of food and the unrest simmering over rising cost of staples before Egypt’s 2011 uprising.

Egypt has long been called Umm al-Dunya, or the “mother of the world”. Ancient Greeks described it as “the gift of the Nile” whose flooding each year provided two rich harvests. Egyptian wheat fed the pharaohs and was used by the Roman state to supply the free bread which kept its citizens loyal.

With one of the oldest agricultural economies in the world, Egypt has for centuries been an economic and cultural powerhouse in the region, and at the heart of this is its capital, Cairo. 


by ”Mahmoud

. We have warned them a million times that this is a ticking time bomb that will one day explode”]

Street life in the sprawling metropolis is vibrant and much of the city functions as a marketplace. Although international chains such as KFC and McDonald’s exist, their offerings are often too expensive for locals who prefer their own versions of fast food bought at carts around the city. 

Many foods that are popular today have ancient roots. According to legend, for instance, Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, the Fatimid ruler of Egypt, loved the leaf molokhia so much that he banned people from eating it.

Ful, made of fava beans, is a filling, fast dish. In fact, fava beans were found in pharaohs’ tombs and were believed to be the best food to sustain a journey to the next life.

Egypt is the world’s largest importer of wheat and has one of the highest consumption rates of bread in the world. Egypt’s poor have long survived on bread subsidised by the government. 

In pre-revolution Egypt, against the backdrop of rising global food prices in early 2007 through to 2008, in a country where the common word for bread is aishmeaning “life” or “survival”, Street Food investigates the cost of food staples for the average person.

We look at how Cairo’s street food vendors have been affected by the rise in cost of basic commodities. They are faced with a dilemma: raise their prices and lose customers, or keep them the same and lose profits.

We speak to Abdelsalam Gomma, an economist, and Mahmoud al-Askalany, a journalist and a founder of Citizens Against Price Rises, about the politics of bread in Egypt. 

Al-Askalany holds the Mubarak-led government responsible for rising food prices: “Inflation in Egypt is caused by the greed of the businessmen, corporations, and the government, and by their desire to make more money,” he says.

He presciently tells us: “The government cannot ignore this. We have warned them a million times that this is a ticking time bomb that will one day explode.”

Editor’s note: This film was first broadcast on Al Jazeera English in 2008.