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From Breadbasket to Grain Importer: What Really Spurred the Uprising in Egypt?

January 25, 2012

By Fiorenzo Conte

There is general consensus about the grievances voiced during the protests in Egypt which led to the toppling of the Mubarak regime. People were protesting against a corrupt regime which proved unable to secure them even the most basic right: the right to food. A significant proportion of the protesters was comprised of peasant farmers who moved to the city because they could not eke out a living in rural areas. This movement was enormous  in Egypt as 4 million have quit their land in the last 20 years. The conventional development discourse blames the current status quo on natural factors: a narrow river valley hemmed in by the desert with a fast growing population caused the production of staples food not to keep up with the growing needs of the population. As a result, so the argument goes, Egypt has been a net importer of agricultural commodities since 1974. In this story, however, the concept of nature obscures rather than illuminates the underlying dynamics and the fundamental causes of the problem: politics. When the analysis looks at other factors the story turns into one of social inequality, powerlessness, and Western- backed market reform rather than one of nature.

Social Inequality and Shifting  Consumption.  As professor Timothy Mitchell brilliantly explains what caused the dependence on wheat import was not population growth but a shift of the consumption from basic staples to meat. Grains were increasingly used to feed animals so that grain for human consumption had to be imported. This shift mirrored the divide between rich and poor in society as meat was primarily consumed by tourists and upper-class urban residents while Egyptians continued to suffer from high rates of malnutrition. This shift towards luxury goods was incentivized by the international regime. Grain imports were in fact partly financed by US subsidized loans partly by further borrowing which swelled the external debt so to reach 165% of its GNP in1989. This raises the first question: why the US was willing to finance such large scale wheat import thus fostering a condition of dependency? If the reason was to help the poor – the American loans were called Food For Peace– it would have made more sense to shift locally produced grains towards human consumption while favoring the import of animal feeds. Yet, it did not do this. The reason behind this choice was to find a market for the surplus wheat produced by subsidized US farmers. This shift in consumption and production towards meats ignited a vicious cycle which worsened Egyptian dependency on grain imports: as Egypt struggled to pay back its debt, new loans by the US were made conditional upon a shift towards export crops (grapes, strawberries and other luxury produce) away from staple food to gain more hard currency to serve its debt.

Powerlessness and Land distribution: Another push factor for people to move to urban areas was the condition of landlessness. By 1982, 10% of the landholders controlled 47.5 percent of the country’s cultivated area: a sign of a skewed concentration of the land in the hands of few and not of overpopulation as somebody claimed. This was compounded by law 96 in 1992, which returned the land given to small farmers under Nasser to the original landowners. Even if the unequal distribution of the land was at the roots of the chronic undernourishment of Egyptians, it was never taken into account in the official development discourse. Such concentration of land was encouraged by USAID in order to favor the production of the new export crops.

Decentralization, Market Reform and Crony Capitalism: Another intervention which worsened the states of thing was the reform towards decentralization pushed through by USAID and the Bretton Woods institutions. Originally intended to promote a functioning market without the distortions created by the government, such reform shifted the centers of exploitation from the central state to local authorities and landowners. This shift of the centre of power did not weaken the class of crony capitalists whose fortunes were built upon their connections with the authorities and  made at the expenses of the majority of the population.

In sum, the chronic difficulties in buying their daily bread that most Egyptians experience was not the result of the natural forces of population growth. The chronic shortage of grains in the country resulted from the shift in consumption towards luxury goods ignited by the power of a certain part of the population, supported by the prevailing international regime which served its own interests. This shift was accompanied by the persistence of an unequal distribution of land which left many landless while the market reform promoted by international organizations only favored those entrepreneurs well connected with the state. The idea of nature served to conceal this complex networks of power relationships. To ignore the role of politics is tantamount to ignoring the fundamental cause of the issue thus perpetuating the status quo.

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