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

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder