What price bread in Egypt?

Moving from an "autocracy of bread" to a "democracy of bread".

Debate rages as to the exact nature of events leading to the military ousting of President Mohamed Morsi. Was it a conspiracy engineered by the legions of personnel left in place after the departure of former President Hosni Mubarak; the failure of the police to maintain law and order and state agencies to provide adequate power supplies that whipped the people into fever pitch?

While the validity of these accusations may be a matter of contention, the challenges facing Mubarak, Morsi and Egypt’s next president are the same: how to restructure Egypt’s economy to end the crippling regime of subsidies that hamper growth and act as a drag on government finances.

Food subsidies have been used as a tool to buy loyalty and ensure stability for decades. While a continuing burden, Egypt began to feel the pain in 2008, when grain prices reached record levels and unemployment soared.

By 2010, the Egypt government’s bread subsidy bill topped $3bn a year. Much of this took the form of selling subsidised flour to local bakeries; an inefficient process system that lent itself to massive corruption. As global prices rose bakers resold subsidised flour and bread into the black market, where they could go for five or more times the subsidised rate, pushing up the price of bread for consumers.

The US contributed to the creation of the "autocracies of bread" through the provision of cheap wheat as a device to secure influence during the Cold War. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was the main recipient along with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein who received billions of dollars’ worth of surplus American wheat through grants and loan guarantees, while Jordan, Yemen, and other Middle Eastern countries got lesser amounts. This funding of the "social safety net" was seen as a cheap way of keeping friendly regimes in power.

In the long term cheap wheat has come at a high price; lack of investment in domestic agricultural production and a dangerous dependence on cheap imports from abroad. Bread subsidies also failed to lift the recipients out of poverty. The Middle East is the only region outside sub-Saharan Africa where the number of malnourished people has risen since the early 1990s with Egypt and Tunisia experiencing declines in the standard of living for all income groups outside of the top 20 per cent, despite the rise in GDP.

In 2008 when the price of bread soared, a wave of bread riots broke out across the MENA region. Governments intervened by raising wages, cash handouts and increased subsidies. These were short term remedies that proved unsustainable and had the unintended consequence of making more people dependent on subsidised bread.

Over the next two years a combination of factors - changing consumption patterns among the developing world’s middle class, drought, poor harvests, bio fuels and export embargoes - pushed food prices to an all-time high. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation announced in early 2011 that food prices had surpassed 2008 levels.

The regimes in the region responded in the way they always had - with subsidies. Egypt, Yemen and Jordan increased food subsidies, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco lifted customs duties and import tariffs on food, while Saudi Arabia unveiled a multi-billion dollar spending plan.

For hydrocarbons poor Egypt, the challenge was how to keep pace with subsidies at a time of contracting government revenue. Egypt’s food bill is unsustainable without significant donor handouts or high tourist receipts. The donors have been deterred by the policies of the Morsi government and the tourists have stayed away because of violence on the streets.

If the ousting of Morsi leads to the election of a secular leadership the donors may return. Saudi Arabia is willing to find a non-Muslim Brotherhood leadership and a new president may reach accommodation with the IMF for the release of funds. While these scenarios may stabilise Egypt in the short term and allow the government to continue to fund its food bill, donor aid will simply allow the restructuring of the Egyptian economy to be postponed until some indeterminate time in the future. The fundamental problems and grievances will be perpetuated transforming the government from an "autocracy of bread" to a "democracy of bread".

Photograph: Getty Images

JLT Head of Credit & Political Risk Advisory

GETTY
Show Hide image

Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.