High prices, high risk
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So what's that got to do with the price of wheat?
Quite a lot ... if the topic is unrest in the Middle East.
The price of wheat has nearly doubled in the last year. Egypt is the world's largest importer of wheat. For Egyptians -- half of whom live on less than $2 a day -- that can be the difference between feeding your family and starving.
Egyptians have known only authoritarian governments. But starvation can make political arrangements long tolerated seem intolerable. Egyptians have many reasons for dissatisfaction with the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. But, said the columnist "Spengler" (David Goldman), "The jump in food prices was the wheat-stalk that broke the camel's back."
President Barack Obama belatedly has concluded a lack of democracy is the source of instability in Egypt. The neoconservatives who were architects of President Bush's "freedom agenda" for the Middle East (which Mr. Obama sidetracked) wonder why it took him so long.
Both overstate enthusiasm for democracy. Middle-class Egyptians want free speech and fair elections. But the middle class in Egypt is very small. There are more than three times as many illiterates as there are college graduates.
A Pew poll released Dec. 2 indicates few Egyptians share the outlook of the middle class. Given a choice between "Islamists" and "modernizers," 59 percent preferred the Islamists, only 27 percent the modernizers.
"A population that was convinced just two months ago that sharks in the Red Sea were implanted by the Israeli intelligence services is hardly at a stage of creating a liberal democracy in Egypt," Egyptian student Sam Tadros said in an e-mail to Clarice Feldman of the American Thinker.
"Egypt lacks the sort of political culture that can sustain a liberal democratic regime," Amr Bargisi, a leader of the Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth, told The Wall Street Journal. "Without knowledge of the likes of Locke and Burke, Hamilton and Jefferson, my country is doomed to either unbridled radicalism or continued repression."
The mullahs in Iran tout similarities between Egypt now and the revolt against the shah in 1979. In Iran in 1979, the middle class was larger, support for radical Islam weaker than in Egypt today.
"For Egyptians, the history of the Iranian revolution should serve as a warning," wrote Abbas Milani in The New Republic. "Ayatollah Khomeini hid his true intentions -- namely the creation of a despotic rule of the clerics -- behind the mantle of democracy."
There is no Khomeini-like figure in Egypt today. But the leading opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, is, like Khomeini and al-Qaida, devoted to establishing Islamism all over the world. All modern terror groups in the Middle East have their roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, Kuwait's education minister said in 2005.
Mr. Obama would let the fox in the henhouse. The Muslim Brotherhood should be included in a new Egyptian government, provided it renounces violence, said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
Analysts I respect say the Egyptian army never will permit the Muslim Brotherhood to seize power. I'm inclined to agree. But a government run by the army isn't a democracy.
The army could fragment if things get worse. Many senior officers were educated in the United States and are friendly to the West. The lower ranks, not so much.
"Given the military's low-paid status, it's entirely possible that a new Islamist regime could purchase the military's loyalty," said Jed Babbin, a former deputy undersecretary of defense.
Things will get worse. Chaos has compounded economic problems brought on by high food prices.
The proximate causes of the spike in wheat prices were a drought in Russia and flooding in Australia. Two other factors foreshadow a grim future for poor countries like Egypt.
Wheat and other commodities are priced in dollars. The easy money policy of the Federal Reserve has flooded the world with them, driving prices up.
Mandates and massive subsidies for ethanol are causing an alarming proportion of U.S. food production to be burned up in our gas tanks. In 2001, 7 percent of U.S. corn went to ethanol. Last year, the figure was 39 percent.
The risk of an Islamist takeover in Egypt is small. But it exists. And Mr. Obama's policies -- like Jimmy Carter's with regard to Iran -- heighten that risk.
First Published February 6, 2011 12:00 am