Over the past few weeks, in the Egyptian agricultural provinces, peasants threw the surplus potato harvest into canals and fed their cattle with it. Those scenes resulted from the sharp decrease in the price of potatoes from EGP 2,000 a tonne to EGP 500, which equals the price of other cattle food stuffs.
Ahmed al-Sherbiny, head of the General Assembly of Potato Producers, estimated the losses at EGP 40,000 an acre regarding the summer harvest and EGP 25,000 an acre regarding the winter harvest.
At first glance, the crisis of potatoes could appear as a natural disturbance of the balance between supply and demand, but a deeper look reveals poor governmental planning led to losses that are destructive for thousands of peasants. The disturbance of the balance between supply and demand is usually temporary and of limited effect, but this was not the case in the recent potato harvest crisis.
Potatoes are the second most important agricultural export after citrus fruits with 680,000 tonnes in 2020, representing approximately 14 per cent of the total Egyptian agricultural exports. However, the foreign demand on Egyptian potatoes has declined since last summer, which was supposed to be noticed by the Egyptian governmental planning teams, but this did not happen.
What happened instead was that the government left peasants farming potatoes despite the fact that there is a high domestic reserve of potatoes as it had previously confirmed itself. The governmental vision was based on the premise that the domestic market can take in the surplus considering the relatively good growth rate the Egyptian economy recorded during the crisis of COVID-19, promoted by private consumption.
This vision was proved to be false considering that distribution of such consumption in different sectors is not equal. A second failed prediction was that Egypt could open new markets for its exports within few months; a prediction that proved to be imaginary.
In addition, the crisis revealed the absence of agricultural guiding. This absence has contributed over years to the deterioration of the quality of agriculture in Egypt and its productivity. It also shed light on the policy making process in Egypt, which lacks the participation of the peasants themselves.
Alarming social outcries
The crisis of the peasants came parallel to the escalating protests of industrial workers over the past two months. The first was at Delta Fertilisers and Chemicals Industries with the strike and sit-in of its workers against the transfer of their factory from Talkha to Suez. The second is the sit-in of the workers of Egyptalum, numbering 5,200 workers, who demanded a dividend, which they consider as a part of their wages not an extra. The third is the great shock of the decision to liquefy the Egyptian Iron and Steel Co., which employs more than 7,500 workers.
The sharp rise in the labour strikes and protests express the social suffering of the working classes in Egypt and are a warning bell against the policies of the Egyptian government. The government concentrates its efforts on supporting the private sector, paying little attention to the companies of the public business sector with its attitude towards privatisation of the state’s assets.
This attitude was previously a reason for the popular outrage against Mubarak’s administration. Over the latest years of Mubarak’s rule, workers’ strikes became daily news. The most prominent of them was the strike of textile workers in Mahalla on 6 April, 2008, which represents a main prelude to the 25January Revolution in 2011.