The leaders of the industrial nations waited until last weekend's Group of
Eight (G-8) summit to respond, and at the initiative of United States President
Barack Obama proposed what sounds like a massive aid program but probably
consists mainly of refurbishing old programs.
The egg has splattered, and all of Obumpty's horses and men can't mend it. Even
the G-8's announcement was fumbled; Canada's Prime Minister Steven Harper refused
to commit new
money, a dissonant note that routine diplomatic preparation would have
The numbers thrown out by the IMF are stupefying. "In the current baseline
scenario," wrote the IMF on May 27, "the external financing needs of the
region's oil importers is projected to exceed $160 billion during 2011-13."
That's almost three years' worth of Egypt's total annual imports as of 2010. As
of 2010, the combined current account deficit (that is, external financing
needs) of Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Morocco and Tunisia was about $15 billion a
What the IMF says, in effect, is that the oil-poor Arab economies - especially
Egypt - are not only broke, but dysfunctional, incapable of earning more than a
small fraction of their import bill. The disappearance of tourism is an
important part of the problem, but shortages of fuel and other essentials have
had cascading effects throughout these economies.
"In the next 18 months," the IMF added, "a greater part of these financing
needs will need to be met from the international community because of more
cautious market sentiments during the uncertain transition."
Translation: private investors aren't stupid enough to throw money down a
Middle Eastern rat-hole, and now that the revolutionary government has decided
to make a horrible example of deposed president Hosni Mubarak, anyone who made
any money under his regime is cutting and running. At its May 29 auction of
treasury bills, Egypt paid about 12% for short-term money, to its own captive
banking system. Its budget deficit in the next fiscal year, the government
says, will exceed $30 billion.
And the IMF's $160 billion number is only "external financing"; that is,
maintaining imports into a busted economy. It doesn't do a thing to repair
busted economies that import half their caloric intake, as do the oil-poor Arab
Egypt's economy is in free fall. Its biggest foreign exchange earner was a
tourist industry that won't come back for a decade, if ever. The IMF's $160
billion doesn't take into account the costs of teaching two-fifths of the
Egyptian population to read, or raising crop yields to more than a fifth of
American levels, or training university graduates to do more than stamp
identity cards and shuffle papers. As the international organization made
clear, this is what Egypt and its neighbors require merely to pay for essential
Of course, the IMF's admission that Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Yemen can't meet
the majority of their import bill without foreign aid does not increase the
probability that these countries will obtain financing on that scale. On May
30, the IMF announced that it would lend $3 billion to Egypt - a tenth of its
budget deficit - sometime in June. The G-8 offered the grandiose pledge of $20
billion in their own money along with $20 billion from the IMF, World Bank, and
so forth, to support the "Arab Spring", with the dissension of the Canadian
prime minister. But it is unclear whether that represents new money, or a
shuffling of existing aid commitments, or nothing whatever.
Whatever the Group of Eight actually had in mind, the proposed aid package for
the misnomered Arab Spring has already become a punching bag for opposition
budget-cutters. "Should we be borrowing money from China to turn around and
give it to the Muslim Brotherhood?" Sarah Palin asked on May 27.
"Now, given that Egypt has a history of corruption when it comes to utilizing
American aid, it is doubtful that the money will really help needy Egyptian
people. Couple that with the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is organized to
have a real shot at taking control of Egyptís government, and one has to ask
why we would send money (that we don't have) into unknown Egyptian hands," the
former Republican vice-presidential candidate added.
Whether any amount of foreign aid will stabilize Egypt's economic position is
questionable, even if the industrial nations and the Arab Gulf states opened
their purses, which is doubtful.
From Arab-language online media, it appears that Egypt's economic troubles have
metastasized. Last month, rice disappeared from public storehouses amid press
reports that official food distribution organizations were selling the grain by
the container on the overseas market. Last week, diesel fuel was the scarce
commodity, with 24-hour queues forming around gasoline stations. Foreign
tankers were waiting at Port Said on the Suez Canal to pump diesel oil from
storage facilities, as government officials sold the scarce commodity for cash.
This is the sort of general breakdown I observed in 1992 in Russia, following
the collapse of the communist government. As an adviser to finance minister
Yegor Gaidar, I heard stories of Russian officials selling unregistered
trainloads of raw materials on foreign markets and depositing the proceeds in
Swiss banking accounts. Anything of value that could find a buyer overseas was
sold. I didn't last long as an adviser; looting and pillaging wasn't my area of
competence. Russia, it should be recalled, is largely self-sufficient in food
and is among the world's largest oil producers, while Egypt imports half its
food. Russia had enormous resources on which to draw. Egypt, Syria and Tunisia
For 60 years, the Egyptian army and associated crony capitalists ran the
economy as a private preserve. Although the army remains in nominal charge, the
public humiliation of Mubarak serves notice on the previous masters of Egypt's
little universe that they are as vulnerable as their former patron. Everyone
who can get out will and will take with them whatever they can.
Syria is also vulnerable to hunger, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization
(FAO) warned May 23. "Continuing unrest in Syria will not only affect economic
growth but could disrupt food distribution channels leading to severe localized
shortages in main markets," according to the FAO. ''Syria hosts one of the
largest urban refugee populations in the world, including nearly one million
Iraqis who have become more vulnerable because of rising food and fuel prices."
Nearly 700,000 Libyan refugees have reached Libya and Egypt, fleeing their
country's civil war. At least 30,000 Tunisian refugees (and likely many more)
have overwhelmed camps in Italy, and perhaps a tenth of that number have
drowned in the attempt to reach Europe. A large but unknown number of Syrian
refugees have fled to Lebanon and Turkey.
Robert Fisk wrote in the London Independent on May 30 that Turkey fears a mass
influx of Syrian Kurdish refugees, so that "Turkish generals have thus prepared
an operation that would send several battalions of Turkish troops into Syria
itself to carve out a 'safe area' for Syrian refugees inside Assad's
caliphate." The borders of the affected nations have begun to dissolve along
with their economies. It will get worse fast.
Spengler is channeled by David P Goldman. Comment on this
article in Spengler's Expat Bar forum.
(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please
contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)