Mustafa Amin writes from Cairo: What is the most pressing problem facing President Mohamed Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood? Cutting back on the power of the generals? No. It is the price of bread. President Gamal Abdel Nasser was an astute dictator. Bread, the staple food of poor Egyptians, was heavily subsidised. President Anwar Sadat forgot this in 1977 when he tried to cut food subsidies. Hundreds were killed in protests and the President backed down.
The first President of independent Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, copied the Singaporean recipe for good governance. Little political freedom in return for economic growth; low cost housing; and government controlled low prices of basic food staples. His successor, Ben Ali, decided that neo-liberal economics was the way forward. He allowed food prices to rise. We all know what happened next. Bread breeds revolution. The key slogan at Tahrir Square was: bread, dignity and social justice.
The bad news for the Muslim Brotherhood is that the worst drought in living memory in the American Mid-West is pushing up maize prices by up to 50 per cent. Maize is the main fodder for cattle and pigs. So the price of meat will go up. The situation is made worse by a Congressional decree that states that 40 per cent of the maize crop has to be turned into ethanol. Soya is also used for producing this biofuel. Will President Obama suspend the huge subsidies paid to farmers who turn maize into biofuel? Of course not. Many of them are in Ohio which is a key state in the presidential election in November. The Republicans have to win Ohio if Mitt Romney is to walk into the White House. So we have the extraordinary spectacle of ethanol being fed into motor cars while humans go hungry.
The wheat crop –used for making bread – is also down. Countries such as China and Russia want to ban or restrict exports.
The impact of lower harvests this summer will be felt next spring. Expect trouble as hungry people riot because they cannot afford to feed themselves. So the greatest threat to the Muslim Brotherhood is not from the Egyptian military but from the country’s hungry people. Egypt is running out of foreign currency to pay for imports. Staple food imports will cost much more next year. Where will the money come from?
Who will gain from hunger protests? The Salafis. They regard the Muslim Brotherhood as too moderate and want an Islamic state and Sharia law. About a quarter of the population may support them. Why? They provide food aid and say that they will ensure that every family has enough to eat. They do not need to spell out how they would do this. Just the promise would gain them support. In Britain the average family spends 10 per cent of disposable income on food. In Egypt it is 40 per cent.
The Salafis are becoming bolder in Tunisia because of rising food prices. Apparently secular Tunisians are arming themselves to ensure they can defend themselves and their property if they are attacked. Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, cannot feed its growing population adequately. Large parts of the country are already under the control of Al Qaeda. Islamists believe it is only a matter of time before they take over the whole country.
So expect a hot spring in the Middle East and further afield. The time has come to stop subsidising the production of ethanol from maize and soya. They are needed to feed humans. Make no mistake about it, hunger drives revolution. If the Muslim Brotherhood cannot provide affordable food for the Egyptian poor, the Salafis will argue that only a theocratic state can solve the problem. The Muslim Brotherhood is living on borrowed time.