Back in Cairo, I went out with my kids to buy vegetables and saw a store I had never noticed before, called الأمن الغذائي (“Food Security”), on an obscure block of Mosaddak Street. The man minding the store turned away from the Quran Channel to welcome us effusively and show us all his wares (this is where it helps to bring along a cherubic two-year-old): olive oil, honey, jam, beef, chicken (fresh whole, fresh parts, frozen, breaded, etc.), frozen peas.
Me: What does Food Security mean?
The Man: Food Security of the Armed Forces.
Me: Huh? Everything sold here is produced by the armed forces?
Him: Yes. Top quality!
Me: I’ve never noticed this place before.
Him: We’ve only been here for about six months. (So, May 2011.)
Me: So… are you with the military as well? (He did not look it.)
Him: No, I’m just the agent (wakil). See, we have chicken panee, ready to cook, and also some (pointing to own legs; I love it when people do this) drumsticks, and thighs…
Me: Says on this olive oil it’s from Sinai. And the honey too?
Him: Yes! From the farms of the armed forces there.
Me: Ya salaam.
Him: Yeah, it’s delicious.
Me: And the whole chicken, how much do you sell it for?
Him: 21 LE/kilo.
Me: Wow. That’s really good. Way better than the supermarket.
Him: And it’s baladi (i.e., country; in this context, possibly free-range): from the Armed Forces farms.
Me: Hmm. Too bad I just bought some chicken at the other store.
Him: Well, maybe tomorrow.
I did buy a small bottle of olive oil. Will let you know how it is; looks a good rich green color. Do we think it has been subjected to an extra virginity test?
I wondered whether I could take a picture of the place – it’s illegal to photograph in military installations. (Then as we were leaving the man pulled out his phone and took a few pictures of my daughter. Who obligingly smiled and waved, like the diva she has become.) But of course there’s no secrecy at all: providing subsidized food products is an official and integral part of the mission of the Armed Forces. The military-owned Food Security Corporation is listed in the phone book, food price bloggers eagerly follow its prices, and you can find old price lists (from several years back) online.
For what it’s worth: my quick Google search also turned up a commenter on an Ikhwan web forum about food safety a couple of months ago: she complained that she had found an English-language label inside some Food Security meat she had bought, after the store clerk had assured her it was from the Armed Forces’ local farms. The label said “made in India.” Her comment: “Have we resorted to eating the beef of the Hindus?”
By the way, the rumor about military ownership of the beach resort we visited at Ayn Sokna was roundly denied. Which was good, because I liked the place. “No, no, the owner here is Mr. … Yes, he’s a civilian. You’re thinking of the Petrojet resort down the road.” Petrojet = the national oil company, whose gas stations dot that beautiful highway. Like the Food Security Corporation, it’s based in Heliopolis: near the Military Academy and the (former) presidential palace and lots of other military installations, military clubs, parks, etc. A city within a city for a state within a state.