A change must come

The most dismal account of the January uprising in Egypt came from within.

Egyptian Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei said that Egypt “is on the list of failed states”. He added that the Arab world is “a collection of failed states who add nothing to humanity or science” because “people were taught not to think or to act, and were consistently given an inferior education”.

Gulf businessman Omar Alghanim notes that the employment pool in the Arab world “is not at all what’s needed in the global economy”. Countries can languish for only so long before they have to face reality. Egypt and Syria are now facing reality, a reality whose seeds were sown by dictatorial leaders who saw it fit to keep the majority of their people subjugated.

This is nothing new nor is it unique to the Arab world. It was the failed policy of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party in the 1930s.

As the world’s largest importer of wheat Egypt is beholden to foreign suppliers for roughly half of her total food consumption. Poor economic performance coupled with the changing diet of her more prosperous East Asian counterparts has spelt disaster. As the Chinese and Indians consume more protein they are effectively pricing grain out of the reach of oil-importing Arab countries.

Higher demand for protein means higher demand for grain which means a higher price for grain. Egypt can no longer adequately feed her people because she cannot adjust to price fluctuations. According to a 2009 World Bank report on Arab food security, “Arab countries are very vulnerable to fluctuations in international commodity markets because they are heavily dependent on imported food. Arab countries are the largest importers of cereal in the world. Most import at least 50 percent of the food calories they consume.”

Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir, a native Egyptian suggests that the Muslim Brotherhood weakened the Egyptian economy:

“There was a shortage of food, and they sold the petrol or gave it to Gaza. I was there in April, and you’d see queues of 1km of cars waiting three, five or eight hours to get provisions.” Thomas Friedman of The New York Times visited Cairo in June and watched as people waited for subsidised bread. Many left hungry.

Syria is also hungry. Paul Rivlin of Tel Aviv University explains the consequences of the liberalisation of the Syrian agricultural sector in a 2011 study. He notes that Syrian agriculture is suffering from the country’s move to a “social market economy”.

It had a devastating effect on small farmers who account for about 20 per cent of Syria’s GDP and workforce. These farmers were no longer in a position to grow enough food or earn enough money to feed their families. In May 2010, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation warned of widespread starvation, adding: “Continuing unrest in Syria will not only affect economic growth but could disrupt food distribution channels leading to severe localized shortages in main markets.”

Mexico faced her reality in the form of the 1980s debt crisis. The policy of deliberately subjugating people had stopped working. It has now stopped working in Egypt and Syria, but with one major difference. Unlike the Mexicans who could go, nay, flee to America, the Egyptians and Syrians have nowhere to go to improve their lot.

The change must therefore come from within. Egypt and Syria have to make the transition to modern economies. The numbers are mind boggling. According to the IMF in May 2011, “the external financing needs of the region’s oil importers is projected to exceed $160 billion during 2011-13”. Egypt can hardly rely on tourism.

As a piece in the Los Angeles Times put it, the pyramids are quiet and the hotels empty. No sensible person will invest or visit a country where extremists rule the roost. India, Sri Lanka and especially China, whose economy grew by nine per cent between 1978 ad 1995, are examples of countries who, once they relaxed government (or dictatorial) control of their economies experienced economic upturn.

If nothing changes the rest of the world will quickly realise the truth of one of Spengler’s universal laws — Nothing is more dangerous than a civilisation that has only just discovered it is dying.

— Adrian Sobers

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