Egypt—Lack of Democracy Isn’t the Problem

The bottom half of Egypt’s population—the folks who have little to lose by taking to the streets—have little to eat beside government subsidized bread and this is threatened by a shortage of imported wheat.

By Morgan Norval | July 9, 2013

The globalists, foreign policy wonks, and the media are all in an uproar over the Egyptian military ousting the elected Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. Their angst was visible for all to see. On the one hand, there was growing awareness that “democracy” in Egypt under the Brotherhood was not moving towards the dream of a universal Western-style democratic government. In fact, it was moving away from that to an authoritarian style which the elected Morsi government was supposed to replace.

On the other hand, President Obama expressed the hand-wringing concerns of the globalists and international elites saying he was “deeply concerned by the decisions of the Egyptian Armed Forces to remove President Morsi and suspend the Egyptian Constitution.” He conveniently didn’t mention the suspended Constitution was one Morsi rammed through the parliament which greatly concentrated more political power in his hands.

The scenes on TV of the million Egyptians protesting in Tahrir Square in Cairo, claim the globalists and foreign policy elites, is proof positive that Egyptians are lusting after Western-style. No doubt, some are but not all Egyptians. A survey by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitude Project, as reported in Bloomberg April 26, 2011 stated about 60 % of Egyptians polled by the Pew survey said Egyptian “laws should strictly follow the teaching” of Islam’s holy book. Islam’s holy law thus trumps those enacted by elected parliaments. The counter protests— Muslim Brotherhood instigated—supporting Morsi in Tahrir Square after his ouster, and their accompanying violence, indicate that more than a few Egyptians are putting in deeds their thoughts expressed in the Pew poll.

While our politicians and media are fixated on democracy, or the lack thereof, in Egypt there are other factors at work that are of bigger concern to the average Egyptian than the democracy versus lack of democracy debate that fills American TV screens and editorial pages.

With or without Morsi, or democracy, or authoritarianism, Allah’s law, or parliaments, Egypt is a nearly bankrupt country. The new military-backed government, and its successors as well, inherits a disastrous economy and the prospects of new governments of whatever stripe running the country further into the ground is highly probable. Egypt has few sources of revenue: transit fees through the Suez Canal; reduced fees from natural gas exports because terrorists bombed the pipeline exporting natural gas to Israel; cotton exports; and little revenue coming from tourism, which in the past was a major revenue source. Tourism was given its deadly blow when Islamic terrorists murdered over fifty foreign tourists at the popular Luxor site. To add insult to injury, one of Morsi’s last acts was to appoint as Governor of the Luxor Province a member of the Islamic group that claimed credit for the terrorist massacre of the tourists.

This lack of foreign capital severely limits Egypt’s ability to buy foreign goods, most importantly wheat and fuel. Why are these two critical? Although Egypt was the breadbasket of the Roman Empire furnishing Rome with the wheat to make bread for the bread and circus policy of keeping the city’s poor tranquil, the country today has to import half of its wheat. Lack of foreign exchange greatly hampers the country’s ability to purchase both wheat and fuel, as arrears have caused many suppliers to demand cash up front—cash the Egyptians often don’t have.

Adding to this woe is the fact that Egypt’s pound currency has fallen 40 % since December 2012. This has pushed the price of basic food items up at least as much and now the price of such items as beans and milk, sources of protein, are out of the grasp of the 50 % of Egyptians living on less than $2 per day.

Fuel is critical because it is required to operate the farm vehicles used to grow and harvest Egypt’s locally grown wheat as well as process and transport cotton to shipping ports, and it is required to operate the machinery that grinds the wheat into flour and fuel the ovens of the bakeries that bake the bread made from the flour. Even though both fuel and bread are subsidized by the Egyptian government, unreliable bread supplies can be a dicey thing to the poor Egyptian populace.

Bread is vital to the lives of Egyptian poor and its affordable availability is a stark sensitive political issue. In 1977 President Anwar Sadat cut the bread subsidy and riots ensued. Unrest was also triggered in 2008 when the rising world price of wheat led to shortages. Imported wheat is critical to Egypt because locally grown wheat does not contain enough gluten to be used for bread making on its own. A mixture of 60 % international wheat and 40 % local is the normal baked bread formula. Due to the shortage of imported wheat, the current formula is 70 % local and 30 % imported. The new formula results in a less nutritional product, but the poor have little choice.

The bottom half of Egypt’s population—the folks who have little to lose by taking to the streets—have little to eat beside government subsidized bread and this is threatened by a shortage of imported wheat. In short, millions of Egyptians are hovering close to a starvation diet and if the government of the day isn’t doing much to remove that threat, then there is little to lose by rioting in the streets.

Malnutrition is growing among the population in the form of protein deficiency, While 40 % of the adult population is already “stunted” from their poor diet as children. Worrying about where the next meal is coming from is more important to millions of Egyptians than whether democracy is a glorious thing for their society.

A June 30, 2013 report by World Food Programme shows the stark dilemma faced by Egypt. The country imports half its food, yet its currency reserves are running out and banks are refusing to finance importers who are already in deep arrears on prior loans. Short of foreign exchange, in spite of who is heading the government—Morsi, a military general, or whomever—Egypt is bankrupt and requires at least $20 billion just to stay afloat.

It is this dismal looking future with starvation hovering about that will be causing more rioting in Tahrir Square, not the debate beloved by our talking heads and globalist elites over the rise and/or fall of “democracy” in Egypt. Growing popular anger over this situation will ensure that any new government in Egypt that doesn’t address the problems of a very hungry population will be short-lived. We can look forward to further scenes of mobs rioting in the country.

Morgan Norval is the founder and Executive Director of the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.