Spengler (aka David Goodman) has an insightful piece about the nature of Egypt, and more broadly the Arab world, which is well worth considering when thinking about the current turmoil. (Bold mine, comments interspersed.)
Food and failed Arab states Spengler
Even Islamists have to eat. It is unclear whether President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt will survive, or whether his nationalist regime will be replaced by an Islamist, democratic, or authoritarian state. What is certain is that it will be a failed state. Amid the speculation about the shape of Arab politics to come, a handful of observers, for example economist Nourel Roubini, have pointed to the obvious: Wheat prices have almost doubled in the past year.
Egypt is the world’s largest wheat importer, beholden to foreign providers for nearly half its total food consumption. Half of Egyptians live on less than $2 a day. Food comprises almost half the country’s consumer price index, and much more than half of spending for the poorer half of the country. This will get worse, not better.
This explains why when the border between Gaza and Egypt was briefly open, one of the main imports to Gaza was “brides” hoping to live a better life.
Not the destitute, to be sure, but the aspiring and frustrated young, confronted the riot police and army on the streets of Egyptian cities last week. The uprising in Egypt and Tunisia were not food riots; only in Jordan have demonstrators made food the main issue. Rather, the jump in food prices was the wheat-stalk that broke the camel’s back. The regime’s weakness, in turn, reflects the dysfunctional character of the country. 35% of all Egyptians, and 45% of Egyptian women can’t read.
Nine out of ten Egyptian women suffer genital mutilation. US President Barack Obama said Jan. 29, “The right to peaceful assembly and association, the right to free speech, and the ability to determine their own destiny … are human rights. And the United States will stand up for them everywhere.” Does Obama think that genital mutilation is a human rights violation?
If he follows the more radical post-modern feminists (the “other” is always right) then, no, it’s a violation of human rights to oppose it, and Ayan Hirsi Ali is a neo-con reactionary. But I suspect it’s a different calculus… the same “realpolitik” that has him push Mubarak out, when he said nothing about the contested elections in Iran. Pressure your friends, show deference to your enemies to show that you’re not a “my side right or wrong” kind of person.
To expect Egypt to leap from the intimate violence of traditional society to the full rights of a modern democracy seems whimsical.
Right on. When our deficient (apologetic) journalist come back from the Arab world telling us that “they want democracy,” they haven’t asked the key questions: “Are you ready to pay the price of democracy, e.g., give up honor-killings, genital cutting, death to apostates?
In fact, the vast majority of Egyptians has practiced civil disobedience against the Mubarak regime for years. The Mubarak government announced a “complete” ban on genital mutilation in 2007, the second time it has done so – without success, for the Egyptian population ignored the enlightened pronouncements of its government. Do Western liberals cheer at this quiet revolt against Mubarak’s authority?
Do these liberals even know? Or is that an item that such “Arab experts” like Ben Wedeman just don’t bother bringing to their attention? More likely, you’ll find it on that neo-con Israeli propaganda site, MEMRI.
Suzanne Mubarak, Egypt’s First Lady, continues to campaign against the practice, which she has denounced as “physical and psychological violence against children.” Last May 1, she appeared at Aswan City alongside the provincial governor and other local officials to declare the province free of it. And on October 28, Mrs Mubarak inaugurated an African conference on stopping genital mutilation.
The most authoritative Egyptian Muslim scholars continue to recommend genital mutilation. Writing on the web site IslamOnline, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi – the president of the International Association of Muslim Scholars – explains: The most moderate opinion and the most likely one to be correct is in favor of practicing circumcision in the moderate Islamic way indicated in some of the Prophet’s hadiths – even though such hadiths are not confirmed to be authentic. It is reported that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said to a midwife: “Reduce the size of the clitoris but do not exceed the limit, for that is better for her health and is preferred by husbands.” That is not a Muslim view (the practice is rare in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan), but an Egyptian Muslim view.
Mind you, Qaradawi is the quintessential case of the Muslim fundamentalist whom Western Islamophobes (Type II) try to tell us is “moderate.” He gives us a good point of reference for understanding what “moderation” means in Islamic terms.
In the most fundamental matters, President and Mrs Mubarak are incomparably more enlightened than the Egyptian public. Three-quarters of acts of genital mutilation in Egypt are executed by physicians. What does that say about the character of the country’s middle class?
Only one news dispatch among the tens of thousands occasioned by the uprising mentions the subject; the New York Times, with its inimitable capacity to obscure content, wrote on January 27, “To the extent that Mr. Mubarak has been willing to tolerate reforms, the cable said, it has been in areas not related to public security or stability.
For example, he has given his wife latitude to campaign for women’s rights and against practices like female genital mutilation and child labor, which are sanctioned by some conservative Islamic groups.”
“Public security” and “stability” are code words for fascism. Are the authors dismissing Mubarak for being too progressive? Are real progressive values too much for liberals to ask of the Arab and Muslim world, lest they offend their sensitivities?
The authors, Mark Landler and Andrew Lehren, do not mention that 90% or more of Egyptian women have been so mutilated. What does a country have to do to shock the New York Times? Eat babies boiled?
Young Tunisians and Egyptians want jobs. But (via Brian Murphy at the Associated Press on January 29) “many people have degrees but they do not have the skill set,” Masood Ahmed, director of the Middle East and Asia department of the International Monetary Fund, said earlier this week. “The scarce resource is talent,” agreed Omar Alghanim, a prominent Gulf businessman. The employment pool available in the region “is not at all what’s needed in the global economy.” For more on this see my January 19 essay, Tunisia’s lost generation. There are millions of highly-qualified, skilled and enterprising Arabs, but most of them are working in the US or Europe.
How much of this phenomenon of people with degrees but without skill sets reflects the products of an honor-shame educational system in which accomplishments and rewards are only loosely correlated?
Egypt is wallowing in backwardness, not because the Mubarak regime has suppressed the creative energies of the people, but because the people themselves cling to the most oppressive practices of traditional society. And countries can only languish in backwardness so long before some event makes their position untenable.
This is especially true when prime divider societies are confronted with productive civic polities. The story of the Arab world after 1800.
Wheat prices 101 and Egyptian instability
In this case, Asian demand has priced food staples out of the Arab budget. As prosperous Asians consume more protein, global demand for grain increases sharply (seven pounds of grain produce one pound of beef). Asians are rich enough, moreover, to pay a much higher price for food whenever prices spike due to temporary supply disruptions, as at the moment.
Egyptians, Jordanians, Tunisians and Yemenis are not. Episodes of privation and even hunger will become more common. The miserable economic performance of all the Arab states, chronicled in the United Nations’ Arab Development Reports, has left a large number of Arabs so far behind that they cannot buffer their budget against food price fluctuations.
Earlier this year, after drought prompted Russia to ban wheat exports, Egypt’s agriculture minister pledged to raise food production over the next ten years to 75% of consumption, against only 56% in 2009. Local yields are only 18 bushels per acre, compared to 30 to 60 for non-irrigated wheat in the United States, and up 100 bushels for irrigated land.
The trouble isn’t long-term food price inflation: wheat has long been one of the world’s bargains.
This is a purely modernist statement. Only modern economies have banished famine, which in prime-divider societies is a regular occurrence (several times a decade).
The International Monetary Fund’s global consumer price index quadrupled in between 1980 and 2010, while the price of wheat, even after the price spike of 2010, only doubled in price. What hurts the poorest countries, though, isn’t the long-term price trend, though, but the volatility.
People have drowned in rivers with an average depth of two feet. It turns out that China, not the United States or Israel, presents an existential threat to the Arab world, and through no fault of its own: rising incomes have gentrified the Asian diet, and – more importantly – insulated Asian budgets from food price fluctuations.
There is an honor-shame dimension to this as well. I have argued that part of what made (too) many Muslims so receptive to a triumphalist message of Jihad in the later 20th and 21st century was the humiliation of modernity. It wasn’t bad enough that the West was more successful (i.e., powerful), and tiny Israel, but also all those Eastern economic tigers. They were not only not the first, they were beginning to look, even to themselves, like the last. Now it not only hurts pride, but stomach.
Economists call this “price elasticity.” Americans, for example, will buy the same amount of milk even if the price doubles, although they will stop buying fast food if hamburger prices double. Asians now are wealthy enough to buy all the grain they want.
If wheat output falls, for example, due to drought in Russia and Argentina, prices rise until demand falls. The difference today is that Asian demand for grain will not fall, because Asians are richer than they used to be. Someone has to consume less, and it will be the people at the bottom of the economic ladder, in this case the poorer Arabs.
That is why the volatility of the wheat price (the rolling standard deviation of percentage changes in the price over twelve months) has trended up from about 5% during the 1980s and 1990s to about 15% today. This means that there is a roughly two-thirds likelihood that the monthly change in the wheat price will be less than 15%.
It also means that every so often the wheat price is likely to go through the ceiling, as it did during the past 12 months. To make life intolerable for the Arab poor, the price of wheat does not have to remain high indefinitely; it only has to trade out of their reach once every few years.
Read the rest.
Spengler is channeled by David P Goldman. Comment on this article in Spengler’s Expat Bar forum.