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Religious violence against Christians and complaints against the ruling military council make up most headlines one reads about Egypt today. But the Nile state’s biggest, and largely unknown, problem concerns how it is going to feed its millions of desperately poor and hungry people in a time of economic downturn and political turmoil. It is estimated that about 40 million Egyptians among an 82 million population now live below the poverty line.
Egypt is the biggest wheat importer in the world, but, frighteningly, may soon run out of funds to buy on international markets the necessary food to feed its impoverished masses. A story in the Financial Times last week states that the Central Bank of Egypt’s foreign currency reserves have dropped $10 billion, from $29.8 to $19.4, since last February.
“The current reserves are estimated to cover 4.8 months of imports, down from 6.9 in April, 2011,” the story goes on to say.
Which translates into only five months until catastrophe strikes. Egypt consumes 14 million tonnes of wheat annually, half of which it imports. The amount of wheat Egypt currently has in storage combined with planned purchases, primarily from Russia, is expected to last only until March.
While the recent massacre of Christians by the Egyptian army demonstrates that Egypt is disintegrating, the inability of the country’s rulers to feed their country’s millions of poor would lead to a collapse into chaos of monumental and cataclysmic proportions. The Asia Times columnist Spengler (a literary pseudonym), who has written about Egypt’s impending food crisis, believes it will not matter what form of government eventually takes charge in Egypt because the starvation issue will override all other concerns. As Spengler succinctly puts it: “Even Islamists have to eat.”
“It [Egypt] will look like the Latin America banana republics, but without the bananas,” Spengler states. “That is not meant in jest: few people actually starved to death in Latin inflations. Egypt, which imports half its wheat and a great deal of the rest of its food, will actually starve.”
Egypt’s food problem has been strongly affected by the continuing steep rise in world food prices. Corn and wheat, for example, have nearly doubled in price in the past year. Overall, food prices rose by 25 percent in 2010. Already last spring, the World Bank estimated that food costs for the world’s poor were reaching a “breaking point.” To make matters worse, prices have increased most dramatically on key commodities, such as rice, bread and cooking oil, the basic staples of people like those who make up Egypt’s huge underclass, rather than on processed foods.
“Food price increases will correspondingly roughly triple the inflationary impact in Egypt compared to Qatar,” reported the Arab paper, the Gulf Times. “In Egypt, the Consumer Price Index increased by 17.2 % in 2010 compared to 3.8 % in Qatar.”
The Arab street in Egypt has exploded twice in the past over food prices. The first time occurred in 1977 when the government of Anwar Sadat ended subsidies on basic commodities. Known as the “Bread Riots,” tens of thousands of people took to the streets in several Egyptian cities in what was called the greatest threat ever to military rule until Hosni Mubarak was deposed earlier this year. Eight hundred people perished in the 1977 disturbances until the subsidies were restored days later.
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