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 Images.
Show Hide image

Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.