Egypt

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Wheat Wars: How the Conflict in Ukraine is Afflicting North Africa

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 29/03/2022 - 9:20pm in

Dimitris Dimitriadis and Iain Overton consider the ways in which violence in Ukraine may provoke social and economic unrest across the globe

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As the conflict in Ukraine continues to run its devastating course, the chaos of war is spilling beyond its casement. The reverberations of the fighting now seem to be travelling down the Black Sea, into the Middle East and Africa.

Ukraine is known as the breadbasket of Europe, but it is not only Europe’s food security – and, in large part, political stability – that is at stake. When it comes to critical food imports, such as wheat and maize, Europe is relatively sheltered from the conflict. Because, while the same cannot be said of energy and fertilisers – the bulk of which originates in Russia – it is countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region that are much more vulnerable to the inadvertent food costs of this war. 

Many countries in MENA import vast quantities of wheat from Ukraine and Russia; they also consume more wheat per capita than the global average and, as such, are vulnerable to the knock-on effects of the fighting.

Global wheat prices have soared to record highs over the last month. Russia’s invasion has made wheat coming from the region either extremely costly or entirely inaccessible. Trade routes have been blocked, infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed, and exports have ground to a near halt. Suppliers continuing to trade face prohibitive insurance premiums – part of the cost of doing business in wartime – and freight costs.

Compounding these issues are a raft of Western sanctions against Russia that have made trading with the country a much more complicated exercise, despite the fact that food does directly not fall under the restrictions.

If Vladimir Putin’s aim was to undermine global food security, Russia could have hardly picked a better target. Together, Russia and Ukraine account for around 30% of the world’s traded wheat. With the conflict raging on, an estimated 13.5 million tonnes of wheat and 16 million tonnes of maize are currently held in the two nations combined. Millions more tonnes are at risk; the harvest season for Black Sea wheat runs in the summer, and planting typically takes place in April. This year, the black fields of Ukraine may well run fallow. 

Just how bad this proves for food markets will hinge on the duration of the conflict. But even if it ended tomorrow, the risks to global food security are unlikely to dissipate. Farmers have been fleeing the conflict in droves and infrastructure has either been decimated or claimed by the invader. In addition, most of the country’s wheat production comes from eastern Ukraine – exactly where the conflict has been most intense. Patching up this breadbasket is going to take time.

Time, though, is a luxury that countries like Tunisia and Egypt cannot afford. The latter is the world’s largest importer of wheat and around 60% of its cereal imports come from Russia and Ukraine. The former is among the top buyers of Ukrainian wheat, accounting for half of its imports in 2019. 

“Bread is the thing that fills the stomachs of the poor and the working classes,” says Fadhel Kaboub, associate professor of economics at Denison University.

For decades, a vicious cycle of import dependency has not been broken. Kaboub traces it back to the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) which “forced farmers in the Global South to switch to cash crops which are very water and energy intensive, and gave governments dollar and Euro revenues to pay for energy imports”. 

This, he adds, sustained an external debt trap and meant that poorer countries never developed the food sovereignty that would have shielded them from conflicts.

If anything, their import dependency has intensified. Consider Egypt, whose population has been outpacing increases in domestic production. Now its Government is facing a sky-high bill of $763 million that it may need to add to its bread subsidies programme, following the import disruption.

On the one hand, Egyptian officials have said that bread subsidy reforms may come up in the upcoming budget, and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has not gone to any great lengths to hide his contempt for the programme.

On the other hand, the Government seems to be desperately trying to contain the fallout. On top of banning staple food exports, it has capped the price of unsubsidised bread – which has soared in recent weeks – and said that its wheat reserves are enough to last for the next four months. It is also paying local farmers more to stimulate local production and diversify its sources of wheat. 

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Tunisia is in a similar squeeze. Even before the conflict, the country was facing severe flour shortages amid difficulties in securing import contracts and paying for shipments. This has in turn undermined its credibility as a trading partner, with “some suppliers now refusing to ship before payment is made,” according to Kaboub. 

Timing is not on the country’s side, either. Ramadan, which is typically when food consumption is the highest, is just around the corner and expectations of more shortages have led to panic buying.  

The country is cornered in another way, too. It will need to commit to “deep reforms” and public spending cuts if it wants a rescue deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). So far, axing its own bread subsidy has not been openly raised in the negotiations. 

But that may not come as a surprise. “Since the 1980s,” Kaboub says, “the IMF has done away with the ‘shock therapy’ type interventions of removing bread subsidies. What has replaced that is shrinkflation, whereby the size of the loaf is gradually reduced and its price is gradually increased. We’ve had that in Tunisia for decades.” 

Both countries, he adds, will ultimately need to “build resilience” and switch out of “deficient economic models”. In the short term, they might be tempted to cut bread subsidies to take some pressure off their exploding budgets. But doing so would also cause widespread hunger and possibly pave the way for social unrest.

‘Bread, Freedom and Social Justice’

History tells us that food prices and political instability often go hand in hand. And where food inflation is coupled with rising literacy rates and unprecedented access to information, it can mean the difference between unrest and revolution. 

Consider the year of European revolutions: 1848. The ‘hungry ‘40s’ were a time of privation, famine and disease. In 1847, a Prussian Minister said: “The old year ended in scarcity, the new one opens with starvation. Misery, spiritual and physical, traverses Europe in ghastly shapes – the one without God, the other without bread.”

Trade had come to a near halt, grain crops had been decimated, food prices were through the roof. Protestors in Paris would soon give authorities a choice: “Bread or lead”.

The 1840s were also a time of relative enlightenment, with literacy rates rising rapidly around Europe in the first half of the century. And while the revolutions were largely acephalous and uncoordinated, widespread printed news and presses enabled the dissemination of political ideas across different nations which, in turn, fomented dissent.

This dual role of food and revolutionary information was also central to the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. Those events, which would unseat a number of tyrants, started with food riots in Tunisia and Algeria, but also coincided with the widespread dissemination of Wikileaks highlighting endemic corruption. Political scandal came at the same time as the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) issued a warning: food prices were reaching record levels.

Arab regimes responded by increasing subsidies – a tactic that autocrats often rely on – but grain prices kept climbing and the release of vast amounts of incriminating and revelatory information on the embattled regimes led people to take to the streets. A popular chant during the uprising in Egypt was: “Bread, freedom and social justice”.

Over a decade later, those chants are more muted but there are familiar grounds for concern. Food prices have recently reached a new all-time high, topping the peaks of February 2011. This pre-dates the Ukraine conflict, so the revised outlook is even bleaker for some of the world’s largest importers of wheat. There has also been a swelling of urban centres in both Egypt and Tunisia – and any increases in the price of bread will stoke existing tensions and discontent.

In Tunisia, thousands of people have already taken to the streets to protest the rule of President Kais Saied, who seized power last year. The country’s economy and democratic transition may be hanging in the balance. The shockwaves of the conflict in Ukraine could not have come at a worse time. 

The longer the conflict in Ukraine draws out, the more pressure these regimes will come under. Whether they or their people crack, remains to be seen.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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Book Review: You Have Not Yet Been Defeated by Alaa Abd el-Fattah

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 24/03/2022 - 10:41pm in

You Have Not Yet Been Defeated brings together the articles, interviews, poems and notes of Alaa Abd el-Fattah, the jailed activist who is one of Egypt’s most prominent political dissidents and human rights defenders. With much of the contents smuggled out of prison during Abd el-Fattah’s periods of detainment since 2006, this collection gives a global audience an opening to draw connections between a localised experience of mass incarceration and other struggles against militarised policing and carceral regimes around the world. 

You Have Not Yet Been Defeated. Alaa Abd el-Fattah (translated by a collective). Fitzcarraldo Editions. 2021.

You Have Not Yet Been Defeated cover‘Everybody knows there is no hope for us who have gone ahead into prison except you who will surely follow. So what are you going to do about it?’ (221).

You Have Not Yet Been Defeated is a collection of selected works by Alaa Abd el-Fattah, one of Egypt’s most prominent political dissidents and human rights defenders. Known for his activism during the Egyptian revolution that toppled the Hosni Mubarak regime in 2011, Alaa has been under the spotlight since for speaking up against government crackdowns, due process violations and the corruption embedded within the country’s counter-revolutionary establishment. He was detained under each regime since Mubarak in 2006 and was sentenced in December 2021 to five years in prison for spreading ‘false news’.

It’s within this critical context that You Have Not Yet Been Defeated was put together anonymously, by dozens of people who collected Alaa’s writings, including published articles, public interviews, poems and notes that were smuggled out of prison. His Arabic writings were all translated into English, and the book appears to call for the international readership’s attention in particular. It follows the sequential order of developments in Egypt, from 2011 to 2020, and is an especially significant contribution given the extreme levels of media and digital censorship in Egypt as well as the considerable risks Alaa’s family and circles have taken to publish and circulate his works.

You Have Not Yet Been Defeated captures the volatile circumstances and writing conditions that Alaa has been going through over the past decade: from long stretches of confinement in a prison cell to fleeting experiences of release back into a life, the ‘normality’ of which he questions and speaks up against. One moment Alaa is at the 2011 RightsCon summit in Silicon Valley, delivering a keynote address on the dangers of communication monopolies on human rights (76), and the next he is behind Egyptian prison walls and deprived of meaningful human contact.

Alaa Abd el-Fattah speaking at Personal Democracy Forum, 2011

Image Credit: Crop of ‘Alaa Abd el Fattah 1′ by personaldemocracy licensed under CC BY SA 2.0

The book therefore reads as a collection of important appearances Alaa makes, taking the reader on a chronological journey through a spectrum of sentiments and reflections that characterised the Egyptian revolutionary moment and its aftermath. Despite changes in relative freedom and writing conditions, he maintains a principled commitment to speaking up against the forces responsible for his imprisonment and the fate of many Egyptians like him. Alaa describes in granular detail haunting memories of the revolution and experiences of the increasing authoritarianism that followed. In what reads as unfiltered reflections, he retrospectively thinks along with the reader, vulnerably sharing doubts, challenges and lessons learned from the past. Alaa is often vocal about his own analytical limitations and uncertainties, going beyond sanitised narratives that ‘over-inflate the movement’s power’ (41). He assesses the revolution’s failures, while stressing the potential of thinking from a place of defeat to give meaning to what happened; ‘we have not yet perished, and meaning has not yet been killed’ (309).

Alaa rejects delusions of individual grandeur and assumes ‘shared comradely intelligence’ (54). His writing style embodies an ethic of collective, relational thinking that places the reader as an engaged member of a conversation. He reminds his readership that they do not need to perform as bearers of knowledge in order to mobilise for better futures. In fact, Alaa highlights the collective value in being teachable: ‘maybe if we listened to the fishermen on our lakes and heard their complaints about the destruction of fisheries by multinational corporations, we’d discover how urgent the issue is […] maybe we need to give the people of Burullus, who have long fought for potable water, a chance to educate us about what it means to be denied fresh water’ (64).

The book demystifies Egypt’s obscure carceral archipelago and justice system. It recounts details of daily life in a prison lifeworld that is hidden from public eye, illustrated through interactions with security guards, conversations with cellmates and family visits. Alaa’s writings elaborate on the military establishment’s abuses of power and its continued encroachment on all aspects of public life. Some pieces recount the absurdities of the institutional and bureaucratic procedures that are worsening in Egypt, including indefinite pretrial detentions, upheld ‘hidden rules’, unconstitutional norms and practices, and national myths about state functions, such as the presumed independence of the courts (219). Alaa does not point to such features as exceptions nor as isolated examples of state dysfunction, but rather as keystone dimensions of a corrupt system that everyone knows about and that the revolution sought to dismantle (218).

Alaa exposes how the country’s security apparatus is engineered to destroy hope and imagination. He describes solitary prison conditions and the struggle to sustain life when he literally cannot think ‘outside the box’. The book outlines how the state continues to put the country’s youth behind bars, quashing potential for progressive social change. It taps into a shared, collective grief over systematic, mass incarceration, and it draws attention to what is occurring in real time to Alaa and many others like him, who are not afforded due process nor any access to fair and transparent legal mechanisms.

Though You Have Not Yet Been Defeated is mainly about Egypt, it is rooted in an internationalist vision. It highlights how, at the core, the Egyptian revolution stood for something greater than nationalist aspirations, finding universal appeal in the calls for freedom and justice for all people. The book speaks to political realities that resonate beyond the country’s borders, and is timely considering the prevalence of enforced disappearances, torture and arbitrary detention across the region. For example, Alaa shares lessons from his visit to Gaza, where he witnessed Palestinian steadfastness and learnt from its culture of martyrdom more closely: ‘Gaza stands fearlessly, calling out to us: come, for I have the truth, people who love life and desire freedom. Come, for I have the last wall: if it falls, so will every wall and every warden and every jailer in Egypt as in Syria’ (118).

Indeed, Alaa draws on various sources of inspiration from different contexts to learn from how they fought against the same structures of power that affect Egypt, even if in varying ways. In thinking about who will write the constitution following the ousting of Mubarak in 2011, he looks at South Africa’s experience in drafting the Freedom Charter (59) and the importance of including the ‘revolutionary masses’ in this collective project (64). He also looks up to the Occupy movement and its calls for a global restructuring.

Alaa goes beyond the boundaries of the nation state to explain how international political economy affects the living conditions of different classes within Egyptian society: for instance, how it shapes agribusiness and the conditions of small farmers who were long left outside dominant ‘Arab Spring’ discourses. More broadly, much of his analysis challenges hegemonic Western discourses that detach revolutions across the region from the broader global context, instead treating them as distinct phenomena. Alaa defies this insular politics reflected in the framing adopted by Western political pundits and mainstream culture that attempts to make sense of political developments in Egypt.

Ultimately, You Have Not Yet Been Defeated is a call for action. Alaa writes with an unflinching political urgency, addressing the reader directly to ask what they are doing to rise against injustice. To him, the activist is not a spectacular cult figure or gatekeeper, but rather the average person that uses their agency and influence to organise within their respective contexts. He reminds each person living outside prison walls that they have an important role in the fight to make the world a more just and compassionate place. Indeed, Alaa demonstrates how regressive social changes do not happen overnight. He cautions against slipping into complicity, disengaging from the struggle and feeding into manufactured silence. In this context, the book highlights how important it is to not take for granted the freedom ‘to go out and challenge the authorities’ (220).

While Alaa speaks at great length about the sense of collective defeat in Egypt, he makes an important case to use it as an example to draw meaning from; to allow defeat to serve as a generative space for solidarity; to share lessons, foster connections and renew possibilities to create alternative futures (309). The book highlights the interdependence and connectedness between struggles for freedom across the world, making clear that the most effective way that those who have not yet been defeated can help Egypt is by ‘fixing their own democracy’ (312). Considering the growing momentum to strengthen global movements and solidarity campaigns against systemic oppression, Alaa’s interventions give a global audience an opening to draw connections between a localised experience of mass incarceration and other struggles against militarised policing and carceral regimes across different geographies.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science.