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Egyptian Revolution: Food for Thought

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The Egyptian Food Riots of 2008 (via sultanknish.blogspot.ca)

2011 was some year for Egypt.  From the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in February, to the electoral gains by his erstwhile nemesis The Muslim Brotherhood (and co.) in December, the shift in the political climate seems to have happened at almost warp drive (the obligatory Star Trek Reference!). Yet (plus ca change. plus c’est…) as it was in February, 10 months on, the same protesters at the iconic Tahrir square, now face some of the most brutal Security Forces crackdowns in the region. This article in the Atlantic and DemocracyNow’s Sharif Abdel Kouddous describe the harrowing details of the latest wave of state violence  . On Dec 29, they raided NGO Offices in Cairo, claiming they were responsible for this ‘rise’ in protests. I don’t think I have anything useful to add, so I will leave this there.

Revolutions which overthrow entire governments are a complex phenomenon. Being the pattern seeking creatures that we are; can’t help but look for that one defining cause or group of people which drive such a popular revolt. Perhaps that is why post-revolutionary time periods are dominated by a jostling for credit of the revolution, and  in many ways Egypt has been no different. Usually a myriad of factors converge, creating a critical mass which sweeps a nation. This is likely to be what happened in Egypt and it would be presumptuous to claim, one single factor, or one particular group of people as the sole architects or drivers of the revolution.

Food Riots of 2008

So after having poo-pooed the habit of people trying to find one single reason/explanation for the revolution, I am going to*coughs* venture upon that exercise myself.  One of the significant early movers of the uprising was the shortage in global food supply in 2008, which sparked an unprecedented spike in the price of food (and subsequently protests) in Egypt. For a country where 40% live on 2 dollars a day, this was a full blown life-on-the-line crisis for a vast number of people. Interestingly, this report from AJE of about 3 and half years ago, reveals the urgency of the situation back then and is quite prophetic in its predictions for a turbulent future for the Egyptian regime. It is certainly a somber realization that most folks could not even afford to take part in the protests at the time, so desperate was – and in many ways is – their need to make ends meet. Without formal employment, many are left to scrounge around for leftovers from a system that offers little prospects for social mobility.

Of course, to the outside viewer, all this, is rather surprising to discover. After all Egypt is historically a ‘nation of farmers’ with the ability to produce adequate food supplies to sustain itself. It is host to a vast network of fertile lands around the Nile Delta which should – in theory –  have protected them from supply shocks from outside. But now with more than 85 million mouths to feed, it is one of the largest importers of wheat in the world (primarily from Russia and the US).  So why was this situation allowed to develop in the first place?

The Food Subsidy

Inevitably, the place to start is ‘that subsidy‘, the Mubarak regime offered for wheat and bread (among other staples). In many quarters, this was the conversation killer. Whenever you broach the topic of food, within the context of Egypt, you were immediately shot down by the notion that, “were it not for the benevolent Government subsidy, Egyptians would likely starve to death”. Of course the sad reality of the situation is that this assertion is probably true and the main reason why any discussions surrounding the subsidy need to exercise a degree of caution because of the potential devastatation in the event of its removal.

Yet this line,  unfortunately, was also used to bat away any critical investigation of the Egyptian Food sector as whole. More pertinently the rather obvious questions of, why should Egypt be so heavily dependent on importing wheat and hence the need for those subsidies. And why aren’t they even trying to get a foothold in local production? (There are some very interesting papers on the feasibility and efficacy of these subsidy programs but for brevity, I will limit this discussion to subsidies as whole, as opposed to their specific strengths and limitations – perhaps that’s a topic another post.)

“Open” Sesame 

Part of the answer lies in the role of ‘opening up the Egyptian economy’ policy (first pursued under Sadat and then later – and even more aggressively – under Mubarak) in creating this situation. Now, I am not one of the anti-globalization “Occupy Wall street” posse, who instinctively go into convulsive fits, at the mere mention of words like ‘markets’ or ‘the private sector’. In fact I think markets and private enterprise can genuinely be a beneficent force for society. The only thing I want, is government accountability in dealing with the private sector. The reasons and processes for giving out contracts and preferences (because that will always have to happen in order to facilitate growth through capital) should be transparent and open for public consumption and criticism.

 However, when market economics marries dictatorship, the essential scrutiny mechanisms (which are vital for the prosperous aspects of market economics to take shape and create a local feedback loop) are circumvented. And that  is essentially what seems to have transpired in Egypt as well. It resulted in the emergence of a new class of food producers which catered for the wealthier foreign markets of Europe instead of the local one. The focus shifted from producing vital food stuffs like bread and lentils, to producing luxury food items for mainly the European market. In effect, (for these producers) this created a competition between feeding (the demand of) Europeans, and feeding (the demand of) Egyptians, and there was really only ever going to be one winner in that one.

It was called “The Export Agro Sector of Egypt” because it really did boost it’s export revenues. But the effects of it becoming the focus of Egyptian food production meant that their population was now heavily dependent on imported wheat and bread. This is a good illustration of how a lack of skepticism and critical thinking around the use of economically-neutral terms like ‘investment’ or ‘boosting exports’ can have quite a pernicious impact on the overall discourse of the economy – especially if it relates to one of its most fundamental aspects, namely feeding the population. As a result, vast sways of land which could have been used for producing food for local consumption, were now being used on produce for foreign markets, benefiting a narrow class of Egyptians and creating a hugely disparate society in the process.

The Beneficiaries of Export Agro

“Crony Capitalism”

Obviously part of the problem was also the nexus of institutional corner-cutting both in the private sector and government. This new breed of ‘Food Entrepreneurs’ did not go into this for love of country (nor should it be their remit to do so, I hasten to add) but because this offered them, cheap land, cheap labour, cheap (govt) credit, and ultimately a cheap way to make a quick buck. Once again, the blame doesnt lie with the ‘evil’ capitalist, but the criminal lack of government foresight and oversight, in allowing this situation to rise. Magda Kandil, who has studied this phenomena in great detail calls this straight up  “Crony Capitalism”.

They are entrepreneurs, some of them live abroad, live in the U.S. They’ve been capitalizing on connections that the average farmer cannot have in terms of marketing, economy of scale, access to water, access to technology, access to subsidized fuel, access to subsidized fertilizers. So I’m against this model because it doesn’t help the social agenda. (Magda Kandil)

Coupled with this, the increasing price of (land) rent meant that many of those small-scale farmers, who would otherwise cater for local demand, were now put out of business and were essentially left to rot like the millions of other unemployed that wander the streets of Cairo today. Moreover, the preferential treatment of these ‘new food entrepreneurs’ resulted in some of the earliest clashes with the security forces. Indeed this formed a significant part of the food riots in 2008.

Population Growth, the Obvious Confounding Factor

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that the Export Aggro sector, or the government backing of it, is the sole reason for Egypt’s vulnerable position on food. Clearly the ballooning population, in any case, would have made it difficult for Egypt to sufficiently produce its own wheat and lentils. The population is thought to have nearly doubled in the past 30 years (when Hosni Mubarak took over the reigns) to around 85 million today. Some estimate that, if current trends continue, a further 55 million will be added by 2050. That means, sustaining the current food subsidies becomes harder and harder in the future.

But the core point remains, that instead of attempting to ameliorate the problem, the Mubarak government chose prioritize other things – and in that choice, betrayed their staggering levels of ineptitude (and that’s the most generous reading of it). Its another reminder of how the bottom classes (even when they are local farmers) are shafted in disparate developing economies. Happens in Egypt, happens in other parts of the world as well.

The Islamist Bloc

It will be interesting to see how the Islamist Bloc –  consisting of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis and some others (when they come to power) – address this issue. Because handling population growth means improving Family Planning programs, Maternal & Women’s Healthcare and the promotion of Contraceptives on a large scale, among others – all  of which are total anathemas to their traditional ideologies. Moreover, one of the best ways to address the issue of population growth, is to bring in more women into formal employment – another thing, which is sure to prove  a mind-bender for them. This is not to suggest that these will be impossibilities in religiously conservative governments; certainly Iran – with all the baggage of its religious leaders – is one example where family planning programs have been successfully implemented. But, failure to adequately address this issue, will mean that a majority of Egyptians will be continually dependent on food imports from such countries as the US, Canada and Australia – not exactly what you call ‘Islamist-friendly’. So far, the Islamist Bloc haven’t really articulated a response to this dilemma. The  Salafis’ (the most religiously conservative of the lot) position on this complex nexus of intractable public policy problems, can be summed up by the footage below

A Time for Introspection

This is an extremely unpalatable situation for many sections of Egyptian society. For the privileged classes (yes even those of the leftist, liberal, secularist persuasion), it is an uncomfortable reminder of how the social economy has been perverted to the point, where their own prosperity (even if they don’t like it) probably comes at the cost of pushing others further down in the mire. It is something that they will have to consider and incorporate in the daily narrative of their struggle against the powers that be. Failing that, could mean risking being as out of touch with Egyptian life, as those they are (so bravely) seeking to oppose. For the thriving entrepreneurial-business classes, it should give them a moment’s pause, at the realization that fulfilling their interests may have made the problem of disparity in Egypt, even worse. For the Islamist Bloc, it ought to inform them how the vast majority of Egyptians (the bottom 60% or so) depend for their lives on those wheat imports from abroad and any reckless anti-american populism has the potential to devastate and pulverize those bottom 60 percent in unprecedented ways – if indeed that’s an outcome which concerns them. I don’t think the Hosni Mubarak regime even merit a mention here – so contemptible and morally bankrupt was their role, in facilitating this current predicament.

The problems of food and population cannot be pretended away or wished away or sloganned away. Platitudes wont do at this stage. They will require objective and critical appraisal of the empirical realities at hand. They will require a nuanced understanding of the economic (and demographic) forces at play. For all the bluster and talk of ‘Egyptian sovereignty’ on the world stage, the thing that matters – or at least ought to matter – most, is whether it is able to sustain feeding its own population. If it cannot, all the other professions of national pride like, ‘international recognition’,’strength of the army’, ‘lapel pins’, ‘flag-waving’ and ‘speechifying’ etc etc, mean diddley squat. If you don’t own the food you eat, you don’t own the thoughts you think, that’s a lesson for Egypt (and others). Because defeat on this, would mean the price of acquiring food, is going to shoot up. And with that, the value of human life – and all its concurrent edifices like this revolution- will fall by the wayside.


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1 Comment

  1. [...] governments and people interested in social and economic equality. In fact, my post on Egypt and its food situation did allude to it being a major feature of poverty and inequality in that [...]

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