Feature

Egypt: Democracy suffers as food crisis worsens

How na

How naïve it was to believe that elections in Iraq would spread democracy throughout the Middle East, said Lebanon’s Daily Star in an editorial. Just look at Egypt. President Hosni Mubarak’s regime briefly seemed serious about democratic reform, but in recent local elections it reverted to its usual trick of locking up the opposition and giving its own candidates a clear run. So you can be sure that when Mubarak stands down in three years, his chosen successor—almost certainly his son, Gamal—will have no trouble being elected into office. Meanwhile Mubarak’s economic reforms, though applauded in the West, have done little to help millions of Egyptians who still “wallow in poverty.” But when a bread shortage caused by skyrocketing world wheat prices led to rioting in the northern city of Mahalla several weeks ago, the issue became impossible to ignore.

Egypt desperately needs wheat to feed its soaring population, which has risen by more than a third in just 15 years and now stands at 75 million, said Hassane Zerrouky in France’s L’Humanité. Of these, some 20 million, living on less than $1 a day, depend on subsidized bread to survive. Egypt spends $2.7 billion on flour subsidies, and is the second largest wheat importer after China. But wheat prices have shot up owing to the increase in global demand, and the resulting scarcity is provoking fierce discontent. After waiting for hours in long lines outside bakeries, people go away empty-handed.

We’ve never had shortages like this, even during the wars against Israel, said Abdallah Abelgayid in Egypt’s Al-Arabi. And corruption is making things 10 times worse. Bakers sell their subsidized flour ration on the black market; some openly stash sacks of it in their cars, but customers dare not complain for fear they won’t be served. Don’t blame the bakers, said Maggie Michael in The Washington Post. Inescapably caught up in the corruption that pervades Egyptian life, they have to steal the flour to feed their families and pay the crushing bribes demanded by government officials and police. It’s the same for taxi drivers who have to pay baksheesh to police just to be allowed to pick up fares. Even the sick and injured have to “tip” ambulance workers and nurses or they’ll be left to die in the street.

One outcome of the food crisis is that it has dashed any further thought of democratic reform, said Tomas Avenarius in Germany’s Suddeutsche Zeitung. The regime can’t afford to give an inch to the militant Muslim Brotherhood or other opposition parties; it knows they would just use the discontent to bring it down. Gamal Mubarak had presented himself as a reformist, but when the regime installs him as leader in three years—as it doubtless will—he will be just another autocrat like his father.

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