Egypt’s Military Got In a Fight Over Baby Formula This Week

The fight for affordable baby formula exposes the tension between the country’s struggling economy and military power.

Sep 3 2016, 4:00pm

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Amid widespread inflation and high rates of poverty, dozens of Egyptian mothers protested in Cairo yesterday over baby formula shortages. Clutching their babies in the stifling heat, they denounced the recent hikes for the subsidised product, while carrying empty baby bottles to underscore the severity of the situation.

The response from Egyptian authorities had been confusing, with the health ministry advising that mothers resort to breast feeding and buy the milk from new outlets. It also noted that government-run distribution centres providing the formula were involved in a scheme to sell it to sweet shops.

Then, the Egyptian military intervened on September 1 with a swift announcement that it would provide 30 million packets of baby formula at half the cost it would be in a normal pharmacy. Its actions have been lampooned among Egyptians on social media who are weary of the military's continuing expansion into economic activities in recent years.

Earlier this year, Ahmed El Awadi, a member of parliament, foreshadowed the current crisis, noting that Egypt's armed forces were importing massive amounts of baby formula. The controversy escalated when an open letter from last year by the state-run pharmaceutical firm urging Egypt's president Abdel Fattah El Sisi to intervene in a dispute with the ministry began circulating online overnight.

Sisi, who is currently on a state visit to India, rose from the ranks of the military to depose Mohammed Morsi during a countrywide uprising in July 2013. Since then, the military's political visibility and economic power has grown steadily.

The military owns business enterprises in almost every sector, and has a heavy hand in real estate and tourism, according to the Middle East Institute.

Five years after millions of Egyptians toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak for endemic corruption and police brutality, the armed forces have taken a more hands-on role in governing.

Robert Springborg, a retired professor at Naval Postgraduate School and an expert of Egypt's opaque military, told Motherboard that "what is clear is that 'Military, Inc.' grew steadily under Mubarak, but that the growth rate has ramped up dramatically since 2011 and especially since 2013-2014."

The military's quest for dominating the economic sector has had a negative impact on business in the country, he said."So the military is then sucked in to prevent supply breakdowns, as in the case of the baby formula," he added.

Health minister Ahmed Emad explained that the state-run pharmaceutical firm Egyptian Pharmaceutical Trading Company, where the protesters were gathered, was no longer a disbursement center for baby formula as it used to be. He also said that the government subsidises 18 million packets of baby formula annually at a cost of around 450 million Egyptian pounds ($51 million).

The cost of an individual packet of baby formula is around $6 when sold in a pharmacy, but the military will be providing it at a reduced rate of around $3, which is still considered high for struggling families with plummeting incomes.

In response to the spiralling controversy, military spokesperson Mohamed Samir reiterated today the armed forces' commitment to providing subsidised baby formula. He also warned that private companies have a monopoly on the market and shouldn't be trusted but promised that the military would import and distribute formula within two weeks.

The incident has exposed the austere measures Egypt has been taking weeks after signing a $12 billion deal with the International Monetary Fund. Despite a sluggish economy, Egypt is the world's fourth largest arms importer, just recently cementing deals with Russia and France.

Egypt's inflation rate is currently at its highest in a decade contributing to rising living costs coupled with a crippling shortage of foreign currency. Almost 28 percent of Egyptians live below the poverty line surviving on less than $40.

In a widely shared video, one mother exhorted a policewoman sent to disperse the protest, "everything is expensive, electricity, water, gas...we are talking about milk for these children. They are going to grow up hating their country."

The baby formula shortage has also shed light on the ineptitude of a government mired in corruption scandals, with the supply minister resigning last week over misuse of public funds over wheat subsidies.

"These disruptions are bound to continue and to further undermine confidence in the regime and the military more generally," Springborg said.