Huge trucks loaded with baby milk rolled out of Alexandria port emblazoned with pictures of a smiling baby and a message for Egyptian parents: “Don’t pay more than 30 pounds. With the compliments of the armed forces.”
The trucks then fanned out across Egypt, distributing the imported infant formula to be sold at half the price charged by retailers — part of a military venture that illustrates how President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is increasingly turning to the army to tackle the country’s economic woes.
An army spokesman described the move as part of efforts to combat the “greed of monopolists” and ease life for Egyptians. The initiative was announced last month after shortages caused suppliers to raise prices and prompted a rare protest by poor mothers carrying their infants.
It has turned a spotlight on the army’s widening footprint in the economy and its potential impact on the struggling private sector at a time when Mr Sisi, a former army chief who ousted his Islamist predecessor, is grappling with anaemic growth, weak investor confidence and rising poverty.
The military — traditionally a powerful actor in the economy — has over the past year announced a string of new ventures in which it either secured contracts with the government or which it planned to launch itself.
These include producing cement, supplying medical items to hospitals, running the government’s smart-card system for the distribution of subsidised goods, establishing fish farms and manufacturing water meters. Mr Sisi issued a law last year that allows the army to set up companies with the participation of domestic or foreign capital.
Critics on social media — the main arena for free expression in the country — have had a field day mocking the military’s baby milk imports. And even normally restrained media commentators have raised questions about the effects on the private sector.
Mr Sisi, whose government is hoping to secure a $12bn International Monetary Fund loan, responded last week by castigating those who would “cast doubt” on the army. He also sought to reassure businesses.
“No one should imagine that I would not support any sincere and honest investor working to benefit his country or to benefit himself. There are no limits … on people’s ability to work,” he said.