November 7, 2018 / 2:54 PM / 9 days ago

REFILE-Sisi's hot potato: Egyptians hit back after remarks on austerity

(Refiles to fix wording of quote in para 13)

* Sisi tells Egyptians to stop worrying about potatoes

* Social media sarcasm reflects discontent with economy

* IMF reforms squeezing Egyptians’ purchasing power

By Nadine Awadalla and Maha El Dahan

CAIRO/DUBAI, Nov 7 (Reuters) - Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi spoke daily at the World Youth Forum in the resort of Sharm al-Sheikh this week, touching on topics from Syria’s reconstruction to religious tolerance - but it was a remark about potatoes that most stirred the pot.

“Do you want to build your country and become a worthy state, or are you going to look for potatoes?” Sisi asked, after hinting that Egyptian civil servants would go without an annual wage increase this year due to increased government costs.

Sisi was referring to a sharp increase in the price of the staple vegetable over the past two weeks from around 6 Egyptian pounds ($0.3346) per kilo to as much as 14 pounds, widely dubbed a “potato crisis” by local newspapers and which has become a hot topic of conversation on the street.

The remarks hit a nerve with Egyptians battered by years of IMF-backed austerity measures and rising food prices, prompting a wave of criticism and jokes on social media.

A Facebook poll run by a local news service based in Egypt’s port city of Alexandria asked people whether they would rather build a worthwhile country or eat potatoes. The poll registered approximately 24,000 votes, 89 percent of which were for “eat potatoes.”

Another Facebook post read: “A choice between potatoes and rice or salad that’s normal, but potatoes and a worthwhile country?”

The humour provided an opportunity for Egyptians to vent their frustration. Sisi has shut down most avenues for dissent since his election in 2014, saying he is trying to stabilise the country after the turmoil provoked by a 2011 uprising.

Austerity reforms are a key challenge for Sisi. Egypt is committed to the reforms under a $12 billion IMF loan deal agreed in 2016 and aimed at attracting foreign investment.

Under the programme, the government devalued the currency and has been gradually cutting fuel subsidies, putting tens of millions of Egyptians under strain as costs of living rise.

The provision of cheap food has been a constant of Egypt’s politics since the 1960s, and recent reforms have so far left its massive food subsidy system untouched.

When Egyptians complained of shortages in food products, including poultry, the government stepped in to ensure availability.

But more austerity measures are expected in the coming months.

“Obviously it’s painful as we just started taking antibiotics in 2016, and the course should continue until we see through the whole program and fix things for good from a sustainability standpoint,” Allen Sandeep, head of research at Naeem Brokerage, said.

“We are still not out of the flu. Still on antibiotics.”

Sisi, who has encouraged Egyptians to be more physically active, was in top form last weekend riding his bike around Sharm al-Sheikh with much media fanfare.

But a later comment on widespread obesity amongst the country’s youth suggesting most college students should shed half their weight appeared to strike a wrong chord.

Facebook hashtags including #fatsagainstthepresident and #togetheragainstfrenchfries poked fun at both Sisi’s remarks, with one Facebook post calling for a campaign for a nation with no potatoes.

$1 = 17.9300 Egyptian pounds Reporting by Maha El Dahan in Dubai and Nadine Awadalla in Cairo; Editing by Aidan Lewis, Richard Balmforth

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