Aug 29, 2010

Fight for bread

Fight for bread
In Syria, as in Egypt, the availability of cheap, subsidized bread is a cornerstone of the government’s economic policy. Syria’s food problem is less urgent because, up until now, the country has produced enough wheat to meet its own requirements. In addition, the Syrian government exercises significant control over the domestic market as well as imports and exports of agricultural produce. This has enabled it to insulate its food prices from the global crisis to some extent. However, Syria has been experiencing a serious drought over the past year, such that wheat production for 2008 is expected to be down more than 38 percent from 2007. Under these circumstances the control of food prices, which may be critical to the maintenance of government authority, will become increasingly difficult, especially in the absence of a rationalized economy that can create private sector jobs that pay a decent wage.

Jordan, too, has suffered from the rising price of food and in April recipients of U.N. salaries went on strike, demanding higher wages to meet the cost of living. Food riots have also broken out in Morocco and Yemen. In response, a number of Arab governments have declared substantial pay rises for public sector workers (25 percent in Syria; 30 percent in Egypt) and voiced assurances that cheap food will be guaranteed. However, in most cases they have paid for these measures by slashing subsidies on fuel and other commodities. This may be good for the budget and the environment but may exacerbate overall inflation problems.

In Yemen the global food crisis has struck particularly hard.  It is among the poorest countries in the Middle East, and severe drought has further exacerbated the food crisis there. As this blog has noted, the central government already struggles to contain widespread political unrest and is ill-equipped to deal with the crisis. “This is a very dangerous time” said one government minister. “Economic strife can lead to radicalization.”

Indeed, the Yemeni government is not the only one that is worried about the strengthening opposition. The governments of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria are often perceived by their people to be interested solely in taking care of the wealthy elite, while Islamist organizations play the role of champions the working class. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood criticized the government for putting an end to subsidies on cigarettes and gasoline, calling it “an insult to the poor.”

Organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood have a long-standing tradition of social and charitable projects. As the food crisis highlights the failings of the authoritarian regimes, Islamist groups are gaining support. The Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, did badly in municipal elections of 2007, but it has been gaining ground in this year’s elections for leadership of professional associations. Leader Zaki Bani Arshid told the Los Angeles Times in May: “We used to win some and lose some.  Now we win all of them.” It hardly takes a cynic to note that this possibility is why truly democratic elections in the Middle East remain such a chimera. But in other areas of the globe, economic crisis has spurred democratic openings by discrediting authoritarian states. If nothing else, the situation will force the region’s ossified governments to confront untenable situations of their own creation

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