Egypt is running out of food, and, more gradually, running out of money with
which to buy it. The most populous country in the Arab world shows all the
symptoms of national bankruptcy - the kind that produced hyperinflation in
several Latin American countries during the 1970s and 1980s - with a deadly
difference: Egypt imports half its wheat, and the collapse of its external
credit means starvation.
The civil violence we have seen over the past few days foreshadows far worse to
The Arab uprisings began against a background of food insecurity, as rising
demand from Asia priced the Arab poor out of the grain
market (Food and
failed Arab states, Asia Times Online February 2, 2011). The chaotic
political response, though, threatens to disrupt food supplies in the relative
near term. Street violence will become the norm rather than the exception in
Egyptian politics. All the discussion about Egypt's future political model and
its prospective relations with Israel will be overshadowed by the country's
inability to feed itself.
Egypt's political problems - violence against Coptic Christians, the resurgence
of Islamism, and saber-rattling at Israel, for example - are not symptoms of
economic failure. They have a life of their own. But even Islamists have to
eat, and whatever political scenarios that the radical wing of Egyptian politic
might envision will be aborted by hunger.
The Ministry of Solidarity and Social Justice is already forming "revolutionary
committees" to mete out street justice to bakeries, propane dealers and street
vendors who "charge more than the price prescribed by law", the Federation of
Egyptian Radio and Television reported on May 3.
According to the ministry, "Thugs are in control of bread and butane prices"
and "people's committees" are required to stop them. Posters on Egyptian news
sites report sharp increases in bread prices, far in excess of the 11.5%
inflation reported for April by the country's central bank. And increases in
the price of bottled propane have made the cost of the most widely used cooking
The collapse of Egypt's credit standing, meanwhile, has shut down trade
financing for food imports, according to the chairman of the country's Food
Industry Holding Company, Dr Ahmed al-Rakaibi, chairman of the Holding Company
for Food Industries. Rakaibi warned of "an acute shortage in the production of
food commodities manufactured locally, as well as a decline in imports of many
goods, especially poultry, meats and oils". According to the country's
statistics agency, only a month's supply of rice is on hand, and four months'
supply of wheat.
The country's foreign exchange reserves have fallen by US$13 billion, or
roughly a third during the first three months of the year, Reuters reported on
May 5. The country lost $6 billion of official and $7 billion of unofficial
reserves, and had only $24.5 billion on hand at the end of April. Capital
flight probably explains most of the rapid decline. Egypt's currency has
declined by only about 6% since January, despite substantial capital flight,
due to market intervention by the central bank, but the rapid drawdown of
reserves is unsustainable.
At this rate Egypt will be broke by September.
Egypt imported $55 billion worth of goods in 2009, but exported only $29
billion of goods. With the jump in food and energy prices, the same volume of
imports would cost considerably more. Egypt closed the 2009 trade gap with
about $15 billion in tourist revenues, and about $8 billion of remittances from
Egyptian workers abroad. But tourism today is running at a fraction of last
year's levels, and remittances are down by around half due to expulsion of
Egyptian workers from Libya. Even without capital flight, Egypt is short
perhaps $25 billion a year.
Egyptian Stock Market Index (EGX 30)
Price controls and currency depreciation have made it more profitable for
wholesalers - including some employees of state companies - to export rice and
cooking oil illegally. According to the daily al-Ahram, hoarding of rice by
wholesalers has pushed up the price of the grain by 35% this year, while 200
containers per day are sold to Turkey and Syria.
"What is happening," the newspaper claims, is that that traders are storing
basic items such as rice and barley, hoarded in barns and in large quantities,
and are reluctant to send it to the rice mills in order to raise the price of
this strategic commodity". The al-Ahram report, headlined, "Conspiracy to
Monopolize Rice," demands physical inspection of containers leaving Egyptian
The rest of the story is predictable. Once the government relies on young men
with guns to police its merchants, hoarding will only get worse. The Egyptian
revolution has cracked down on the commercial elite that ran the country's
economy for the past 60 years, and the elite will find ways to transfer as much
of its wealth to safety as it can. The normal chain of distribution will break
down and "revolutionary committees" will take control of increasingly scarce
supplies. Farmers won't get fuel and fertilizer, and domestic supplies will
The Egyptian government will go to the International Monetary Fund and other
aid agencies for loans - the government reportedly will ask for $7 billion to
tide things over - and foreign money at best will buy a few months' respite.
The currency will collapse; the government will print IOUs to tide things over;
and the Egyptian street will reject the IOUs as the country reverts to barter.
It will look like the Latin American banana republics, but without the bananas.
That is not meant in jest: few people actually starved to death in the Latin
inflations. Egypt, which imports half its wheat and a great deal of the rest of
its food, will actually starve.
Revolutions don't only kill their children. They kill a great many ordinary
people. The 1921 famine after the Russian civil war killed an estimated five
million people, and casualties on the same scale are quite possible in Egypt as
well. Half of Egyptians live on $2 a day, and that $2 is about to collapse
along with the national currency, and the result will be a catastrophe of,
well, biblical proportions.
Spengler is channeled by David P Goldman. Comment on this article in
Spengler's Expat Bar
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