Arab economy and political culture: Insights into Egypt in turmoil

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.

23 Responses to Arab economy and political culture: Insights into Egypt in turmoil

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  2. incognito says:

    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.

    It’s not farfetched to realize that, in fact, just like Europe, Alibama has decided to align himself with the strong and against the weak. And the strong and dangerous in the ME are the islamists. The west has collapsed economically, it is marinated in corruption and trying to save its own ass by kissing that of the islamists in the hope that they will not do to it what they are known to do to infidels.

    Unfortunately, they ignore the fact that weakness invites pounding from the islamists.
    I am glad that I am old enough to not be around in the next several decades to experience the new world order. It won’t be pretty.

  3. Don Cox says:

    “The west has collapsed economically”

    That is an exaggeration. Europe during a bad recession is still much more prosperous and a much better place to live in than Egypt.

  4. E.G. says:

    Yes, honour-shame and youth bulge.

  5. incognito says:

    Prosperity tends to induce corruption, decadence and appeasement
    of enemies, not defense.

    It is decadence and corruption that lowered the prosperity
    of the West and the socio-political system has become too
    rotten at the top to be able to maintain past prosperity.
    Inequalities have become too acute for any social glue
    to exist.

    Europe has no serious defenses and
    they are continuously slashed, as are public services.
    Inequalities are so acute as to destroy any social glue.
    The EU undemocratic, corrupt suprastructure guarantees

    Instead of defending its diminishing prosperity and freedoms,
    the West is accelearting its suicide by aiding in the ascent of islamists,
    who want nothing less than subjugating and exploiting infidels,
    because they are incapable of any progress themselves.
    The western elites delude thmselves that by aiding such ascent
    they will save their own ass, failing to realize that weakness
    incites islamists to exactly the opposite — pounding.

    Furthermore, Europe fails to replicate itself and is dying,
    while the muslim influx and birth rate are insuring that within
    a decade 10-20% of Europe will be muslim. At which point
    politicians — particularly the corrupt and appeasing ones —
    will be compelled to kiss muslim ass, guaranteeing game over.
    Already there are areas in every European country where
    the police and army don’t dare venture.

    Steyn argued AMERICA, ALONE. He is wrong: America is
    really no more — it has just joined Europe in demise.
    Alibama is a reflection of this, not a cause,
    although he is accelerating the demise. The US currently lives
    with the illusion of power while in reality it has rendered
    itself impotent — it has no say in ME developments. This
    can be clearly seen in Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Gaza,
    Yemen and now Egypt and Yemen, soon Jordan and even Saudia.
    None of this would happen if America were what it believes
    itself to be. As is usually the case the world has realized
    it and behaves accordingly, while the US is still in denial.

  6. Steven M. Karmi says:

    Bread and Clitorises.

  7. Don Cox says:

    “Prosperity tends to induce corruption,”

    No. Corruption is worst in poor countries.

  8. incognito says:

    Corruption is higher at both ends of the rich/poor continuum.

    At the rich end it is more sophisticated, of different quality,
    there is more capability to hide it and the public more likely
    to fool itself about it. At the rich end it is more blatant,
    its consequences more obvious and everybody knows it happens.

  9. incognito says:

    Oops, the last sentence was about the poor end.

  10. incognito says:

    For the thorough yet sophisticated corruption in the US see the postings at:

    For a more specific example see:

    For the economic sources of the US demise watch:

  11. incognito says:

    Also pertinent and must watch:

    It’s free for a while.

  12. incognito says:

    But it becomes harder to hide the corruption:

    Western governments today are nothing but kleptocracies.

  13. N00man says:

    So if you’re against Mubarak, you’re for female genital mutilation?

    This may be the most cynical thing you’ve ever written.

    • rlandes says:

      where do you derive from my article the principle “if you’re against mubarak, you’re for female mutilation”? at most one could derive: “mubarak is against female mutilation and some of the opposition dislikes him because of his secular, westernizing tendencies (which opposition, the starry-eyed romantics of the west insist on admiring despite its real nature or origins). but your formula? not mine.

  14. Two recent events:

    “Hate with a Scottish Accent (more video footage of Ishmael Khaldi among the mob)”, Event took place at Edinburgh University in Scotland, article posted Saturday, 12 February 2011;

    “Sound and Fury at Hampshire College as Protesters Disrupt Talk by IDF Soldier”, article posted Thursday, February 10, 2011, with links to videos of the event

  15. Another article with a link to another video of the disruption and shutting-down of Ishmael Khaldi’s talk in Edinburgh:

    “Video footage of the Bedouin among the Bravehearts (not)”

    Another event (Large marching mob of English British students chant “You’re a Filthy Tory Jew”):

    “You’re a Filthy Tory Jew”, Excerpt from article: “Here’s video footage of a student protest in Manchester on 29 January against the Coalition government’s policy on tuition fees , in which marchers hurl abuse at National Union of Students’ president Aaron Porter.”; the article has a link to a video of video footage of the event

  16. …All while – rather, all because – the Jewish people who are most severely experiencing the deep profound form of Stockholm-Syndrome that almost all Jewish people are experiencing to varying degrees, are leading, in the West, the Islamic-Supremacist, and Western, contemporary, intendedly genocidal attack against the Jewish people, and all while – rather, and all because – the Jewish people who are least severely experiencing the deep profound form of Stockholm-Syndrome that almost all Jewish people are experiencing to varying degrees fiddle with semantics and don’t see the forest for the trees, and barely even see the trees, and issue verbose dissertations about the chemical properties of wood fungus.

    As it ever was.

    It’s time for that to change.

    Jewish people – and especially the leaders of the government of Israel – need to become mindful and discerning, and, in dong so, need to charge the attackers of the Jewish people, and need to, thereby, protect the Jewish people, and the whole world, from harm.

  17. What Must Be Done

    The leaders of the government of Israel must communicate – must mindfully, clearly, firmly, tell – the factual, currently 94-year, history of the situation that Israel is in to the television news media of Western countries, and directly to the leaders of the governments of Western countries.

    The following is an extremely important article.

    “Israel, Ignore at Own Risk: Melanie Phillips on How and Why Israel Must Win the Abdicated War for Public Opinion”

  18. joe says:

    “MEMRI a neo-con Israeli propaganda site”? Surely you must be mistaken about this unique site which provides a well-needed and otherwise unobtainable direct presentation of the Moslem propaganda and commentary sources, both video, audio and written media. Does presenting moslem ”propaganda”, constitute “propaganda”, or rather a mirror of the almost incredibly ugly vituperations spewing forth from the Moslem world? Nowhere in the Jewish/Israeli mediasphere does one find such demonically inspired hate.

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