This is the first in an occasional series about the state of the security state in Egypt, denoted by the kicker at right. How safe is your meat? I bet it is not as safe as the meat for sale at Egypt’s October for Food Security company (شركة اكتوبر للأمن الغذائى). At least that’s what the plastic shopping bags the company uses at its many outlets would have you believe — they proudly bear in English the legend “SAFETY MEAT.” No, that doesn’t mean the company promises you its meat won’t explode or cut you in the kitchen. The funny ambiguity both in translation and in the Arabic original is the result of a complicated ideological war for economic power in Egypt. The dog whistle here is that buying this meat isn’t safe for you; it is safe for the country. If you choose instead to go to Metro supermarket and buy fancy imported goods, it implies you are hurting Egypt’s security. How come? October (named, of course, after Egypt’s October 1973 war to recover Sinai from the Israelis) is a new chain of grocery stores run by the military, and it is growing fast.
When I moved to Zamalek three months ago, I was intrigued by the small shop on Hassan ʿAsim street seen below. It was patently a state enterprise, but also much more upscale than the state-run co-operative outlets that to this day distribute subsidized wheat flour, sugar, tea and oil to lower-class families that hold special ration cards. I finally made a visit recently, purchased a security chicken and picked up the available propaganda.
As I suspected, this isn’t a state company, but rather it is run by the armed forces. Since the military coup that brought the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces one impregnable share of sovereignty in the country, there has been plenty of scrutiny of the military’s economic interests. Interesting essays have appeared by AUC History Professor Zeinab Abul-Magd in Jadaliyya (about food specifically) and elsewhere, in Egypt Independent about the military economy boycott movement “Qataʿuhum,” and in Al Jazeera.
In short, Egypt’s four republic-era presidents, who had all been military officers, allowed the military to develop its own, separate import-substitution industries, both to produce their own munitions and arms, but also to build cars, air conditioners and other consumer goods to sell to the hundreds of thousands of its members at subsidized prices. It has eventually come to sell to the public at large to add extra revenue to its secret bottom line. Part of the media’s recent obsession has been calculating “what percentage” of the economy is in the hands of the military. This is a difficult exercise not only because of the keen secrecy of military industrial production data, but because of the subjectivity of the measurement: would one use GDP (real or PPP?) or consumer market shares, or capital investment, or what?
I am more interested here in the mobilization of ideology and image the military is obviously employing to defend its interests. My internet searches about this company in English and in Arabic bring up no information (so please share this brief analysis with any journalists you know), but I strongly suspect that it has only come into existence since February 2011. And yet it has already expanded to dozens of outlets, some of which are shown on the flyer below: Sixth of October (of course), Shaykh Zayed, Nozha, Heliopolis, Rehab, New Cairo, Al-Obour, Hadayek Al-Qubba, Al-Marg, Al-Maʿadi, Dar El-Salaam, Helwan, 15th of May, El-Manial, El-Doqqi, Mohendiseen, Shubra, Shubra el-Khayma, Imbaba, Faisal, El-Matariya and El-Giza. A pro-Shafiq Facebook group made a list for areas outside Cairo. If this is the case, the military is pouring money into a public economic campaign to raise its image during this crisis (as it has done in many other ways). I don’t think the military acquired the source industries overnight, but like Microsoft trying to launch its own retail locations to fight the hegemony of Apple computer’s retail juggernaut of the past decade, it now has a unified strategy to sell food directly to the upper-middle classes.
The flyer, but not the extensive text on the facade of the store, admits that these are the products of the “armed forces” (at the upper right), a term it uses interchangeably with “food security” in other places in the text. The other fascinating item on this handbill, in the upper left hand corner, is the claim “MEAT AT ITS REAL PRICE.” This is a subtle hint at the extensive conspiracy theories present in Egyptian popular culture about the reasons for incessant inflation — in particular for meat. Much of Egyptian beef is imported from herds in Sudan, and the corruption at high levels involved in the import permits has reduced competition in the marketing of meat, resulting in high prices. The prices advertised at “October”, LE 40 per kilo for whole cuts of meat, are much better than average at the quality they seem to provide. Like any canny entrepreneur with the means, the military is using its size and unique power to soak the market with cheaper goods to push out the competition, as they are undoubtedly importing such large amounts of meat from the same sources abroad that the private traders are.
But is this policy actually making Egypt more secure? The 2-gram phrase “food security” entered the world’s lexicon during the oil crises of the 1970s (seen above), which ended the “green revolution” period of rapid expansion of grain yields in the developing world, and easy food trade, predicated on cheap energy. The concept had been around much longer, at least since the major world economic seizures occasioned during the First World War, the Great Depression and especially the Second World War, which resulted in the creation of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to coordinate world policy to prevent the famines (like in Bengal in 1943) that large-scale wars cause. Egypt was also at risk of famine in 1942 because the naval war had severed its sources of imported wheat, and for the first time imposed “food security” measures, nationalizing agricultural planning and trade to force landowners to grow less cotton and more wheat, and extensively subsidizing food consumption. These policies survived through the Gamal ʿAbdel Nasser period, a time both of nationalist triumph but also economic and political uncertainty and war that necessitated close government management of the food supply and prices to support a socialist program. Any illusions President Sadat had of altering the political-economic prerogative of “food security,” when he tried to eliminate bread subsidies in 1977, were shattered during the ensuing mass demonstrations opposing the policy, the largest until January 25, 2011. Not surprisingly, this was the year the Arabic “الأمن الغذائى” (food security) first appeared in Egyptian political and social science literature. It has since taken on shades of meaning among technocrats and the public at large. An important part of trumpeting food security is both to win Western developmental aid (Timothy Mitchell does a good takedown on this subject in Rule of Experts) but also more generally to announce Egyptian modernity and strength in the globalized world.
Most of the food the military is offering on the flyer above appears to be Egyptian-grown and processed. This would seem to be consonant both with the idea of import-substitution nationalism (“Buy Egyptian!”) and the food security principles of adding value to local products and not wasting foreign exchange reserves on importing consumer goods (however macroeconomically sound these principles are in the long run). However, I don’t think using semi-state military finances to subsidize mass consumption of imported meat, a luxury item that only 1/4 of Egyptians can regularly afford to eat, could really be considered enhancing “food security.” The military believes it can convince the middle class masses that buying from them, and thus enhancing their economic hegemony, will bring security and stability to the country. This is a very familiar trope by now.