Wednesday, February 02, 2011

"Walk like an Egyptian"

SOYMB believe a caveat is required when we try to analyse events that are still unfolding, particularly in other regions of the world where our information is received second-hand through the mainstream media, with their own usual agenda and reporting bias, nevertheless the following is an observation.

In Egypt, food is a highly political issue. The world’s biggest wheat importer, where one in five people lives on less than $1 a day, provides subsidised bread for 14.2 million people. The uprising inflaming Egypt began with crowds marching in Cairo on Tuesday to chants of “Bread and freedom!” The Tunisian revolution began in December as a bread-price protest. Neither event was ultimately about food, but its increasing share of the household budget became a catalyst for larger tensions.

“It’s the sense of injustice rather than price volatility that ultimately causes the rioting.” said Evan Fraser, co-author of the book Empires of Food: Feast, Famine and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations. “The perception of food profiteering hits people on a very visceral level. People are so powerless to do anything about them, and people have to have their daily bread. In a volatile situation where you’ve got all these grievances anyways, history demonstrates food is often the spark that hits the tinderbox.” Although they’re triggered by price rises, food riots are not typically about food at all, he argues , more a complicated tangle of fear, insecurity, desperation and anger.

That Egypt’s leaders know this is evidenced by their hoarding wheat last fall. Shortages triggered social upheaval there before. In 1977, the Egyptian Bread Riots broke out after a national subsidy program was axed. Deadly protests ensued. Another round of protests broke out in 2008 when food prices soared even though there was no real shortage. Despite the fact that 40 per cent of Egypt’s 80 million residents live in poverty, high food prices should not translate into the widespread hunger it might trigger in other vulnerable nations. Egypt has a subsidy program that, when working correctly, insulates its poorest from inflationary food prices. The injustice that higher food prices represent is a powerful motivator of protests. Many states have been more apt to intervene in markets to keep prices down. Their rationale is that a satiated population will have less reason to protest. Often, it is those who are less hungry, but nonetheless incensed by increases in food prices , take to the streets.

Abdolreza Abbassian, senior economist at the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization explains "..this country also happens to have quite a strong subsidy program where they target the most vulnerable. And try to keep prices for that segment of the society rather stable. So that shouldn't spark a big problem or discontent among that section of society...Sparks like what we have seen in recent weeks have been rather unexpected, and the reasons for them I think are very complex. There can certainly not be only one or two factors."

“The people who are attentive and organized and politically mobilized for this kind of activity are not usually chronically undernourished They’re hurt by high prices not in their stomachs, but in their pocketbooks,” said Robert Paarlberg, a food security expert at Wellesley College and Harvard University. “People in Egypt are not hungry. In Cairo, the average calorie intake is 4,000 calories per day.”

Perhaps, it is the Egyptian working class that holds the future of its country in its hands. The organised workers movement saw its unions gutted by state privatization and the gutting of union independence though the hated Law No. 100, which guaranteed that union representation would be strongly controlled by the state. Now a new trade union confederation was announced, the Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions (FETU), which immediately issued a call for a general-strike. Since 1998 there has been a rising wave of strikes, sit-ins, demonstrations and other actions by workers, with a big spike after the acceleration of the implementation of neo-liberal policies by the "government of businessmen" installed in July 2004. Over two million workers have participated in more than 3,000 collective actions in this period. They have won some substantial economic demands. The government reneged on its promises whenever it thought it could get away with it, but this usually prompted workers to strike or protest yet again. About 40% of all the collective actions have been in the private sector, where there are very few local trade union committees. This is a completely new development. The most important political gain by workers in this period was the establishment of two independent trade unions -- the Independent General Union of Real Estate Tax Authority Workers in 2008 and the General Union for Health Technicians only a month ago in December 2010.

Meantime, in Egypt , Al Jazeera is confirming stories of self-managed factories, while have stepped in to fill the vacuum left by the police, setting up neighbourhood defence committees and groups of youths are also directed traffic in parts of Cairo.

On Wall Street, the Egyptian revolt is what is known as an exogenous event — a sudden political or economic jolt that cannot be predicted or modeled but sends shockwaves rippling through global markets. The New York Times describe how "long-simmering resentments have burst into open class warfare."
“These big guys are stealing all the money,” said Mohamed Ibraham, a 24-year-old textile worker standing at his second job as a fruit peddler in a hard-pressed neighborhood called Dar-al-Salam. “If they were giving us our rights, why would we protest? People are desperate.” He had little sympathy for those frightened by the specter of looting. He complained that he could barely afford his rent and said the police routinely humiliated him by shaking him down for money, overturning his cart or stealing his fruit. “And then we hear about how these big guys all have these new boats and the 100,000 pound villas. They are building housing, but not for us — for those people up high.”

Ayman Adbel Al, a civil engineer blamed Mr. Mubarak, arguing that he had allowed the growing class divisions in Egyptian society to build up for years until they exploded last week. “I can say that I am well off, but I hate it, too. It is not humanitarian,” he said. The only people who wanted Mr. Mubarak to stay in power, he argued, were rich people “afraid for their money.”

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