By every possible interpretation, Egypt is a nation obsessed with sugar. Virtually all Egyptians add up to five spoonfuls of sugar to their coffee and tea. Surprise comes as the usual response when an Egyptian observes a fellow countryman forgoing additional sugar in their drink. For decades, sugar has been ubiquitous across Egypt, but within the past several weeks, severe shortages have shocked the nation. Bitterness against Egypt’s government, and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in particular, has manifested in response to the shortage, threatening to throw the country into turmoil. With violence currently engulfing Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, Egypt’s sugar crisis may provide the spark for it to similarly descend into political chaos.
Egypt has been anything but a model of political stability over the past five years, and its economy has reflected it. Since President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February 2011, the political chaos that many feared has largely materialized. The military ruled from 2011 to 2012, Islamist Mohamed Morsi ruled contentiously from 2012 until he was ousted in 2013, and political turmoil continued under the new interim government until 2014. In June of that year, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi won the pro forma presidential election with only 47 percent voter turnout, a figure reflective of voters’ low confidence in Sisi. Since elected, Sisi has maintained peace in Egypt (especially relative to the rocky period from 2011-2014), but the country’s economy has remained in shambles throughout his rule.
Economic frustrations originate in the tourism sector, which suffered severe impacts from political violence. Before President Mubarak stepped down, the tourism industry employed more than one in ten working Egyptians and generated $12.5 billion in annual revenue. Whereas fifteen million tourists visited Egypt annually before 2011, this number fell to 10 million in 2013 and has continued to decline since. In 2015, tourism accounted for only $6.1 billion in revenue, less than half of the figure from four years earlier. Hotel workers, tourist guides, taxi drivers, stall holders in local bazaars, and many others found their income drying up in a situation exacerbated by the simultaneous decline of the Egyptian pound. Since the upheaval of the Arab Spring, their meager incomes have become worth less and less.
Citizens largely blame Sisi and his ineffectual leadership for their economic hardship. To add to the unease, Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood (which an Egyptian court formally dissolved in 2013, but continues to exist underground), have used the weakened economy in propaganda efforts to further undermine the Egyptian government. The shortage of sugar, a good so beloved across Egypt, has channeled Egyptian discontent and threatens to lead to potentially violent unrest.
The Egyptian sugar industry was nationalized in 1963, and since then, the Egyptian government has directly subsidized sugar. The national Egyptian Sugar and Integrated Industries Company (ESIIC) governs practically everything about sugar in Egypt, including prices, supply, imports, and domestic production.
The ESIIC priced domestic sugar 12 percent higher than imported sugar over the past year (because of the higher costs of producing sugar in Egypt), bringing domestic sugar sales to a near standstill. After it realized its mistake, the ESIIC instituted a tariff for all imported sugar, thereby raising its price to the level of domestic sugar. In response, international sugar producers began to supply less and less to Egypt, leading to the shortage the country is experiencing today. The sugar supply is currently estimated to be at a shortage of 80 percent, meaning Egyptians only have a fifth of the sugar they typically have.
Because of ESIIC policy, sugar in Egypt costs 250 percent more now than it did just two years ago, and shops across the country are running out. The few shops that still sell sugar ration it at People across Egypt are sharing their experiences through social media, and many accounts attribute the shortage to Sisi. One man, in protest of rising food prices, set himself on fire in the port city of Alexandria, screaming “I can’t afford to eat.” It was the first public self-immolation in Egypt since 2011. While such an action is singular and isolated, the worry behind it is widespread and continues to grow across Egypt.
Egyptians’ discontent with Sisi stems from poor economic conditions across the country, and the sugar crisis threatens to spark this discontent into violence. The country’s tourism sector has struggled to recover since 2011 (partially due to attacks on Egyptian aviation), and if violence breaks out again, tourism, agriculture, and other economic sectors will be further disrupted. Islamist groups will have more power to challenge the established government and appeal to Egyptians. The Middle East Seems to grow more fragmented daily, and if the sugar crisis leads to violence, this trend will only be augmented.
President Sisi does not hold direct responsibility for the sugar shortage, but many Egyptians who have long been frustrated by a weak economy attribute the shortage directly to him. In light of Egypt’s recent history of political instability, such a threat to peace has a true potential for violent consequences in Egypt. Sugar may be sweet, but a brutal conflict because of it would be anything but.