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Islamists gain from food crisis

Across the Mideast, hard-line groups are stepping in to help the poor, who blame high prices on governments.

May 18, 2008|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

AMMAN, JORDAN — The smell of freshly baked bread calms the room filled with women in frayed cloaks and worn slippers. Grateful for the assistance, they walk out of a Muslim Brotherhood social service center into the trash-strewn alley, clutching plastic bags packed with flat bread loaves.

For five years, the Jordanian government has clamped down on the Islamist group's electoral ambitions and its charity programs, suspicious it was using good deeds to win political support.

But the global food crisis has carved out new opportunities for the Brotherhood and other hard-line groups across the Muslim world. Increasingly unaffordable prices underscore criticism of autocratic governments and drive more people toward fundamentalist groups. Though the Brotherhood fared poorly last year in municipal elections, it has been steadily gaining ground in recent months, sweeping votes for the leadership of Jordan's professional associations.

"We used to win some and lose some. Now, we win all of them," said Zaki Bani Arshid, leader of the Islamic Action Front, the political party of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan. "The government which tried to marginalize us politically for years has now given us a big gift."

The increase in food prices has challenged America's goals in the Middle East at a critical juncture, when it is attempting to win support from friendly governments for an Israeli- Palestinian peace initiative and for confronting Iran and Al Qaeda.

Analysts and officials worry that the crisis could result in food riots.

The anger has taken on an increasingly anti-U.S. tone, even among elected officials. Egyptian lawmakers, for example, have accused the United States of causing the crisis by conspiring to keep their country dependent on wheat imports.

"If we look at these main factors behind the increase in world food prices and the specter of famine and political turbulence, we will easily reach the conclusion that [the] Bush administration and the bunch of neoconservatives and their foolish policies in waging external wars . . . are, in practice, behind this deep crisis," said an April column in the pro-government daily newspaper Al Watan in Oman, a staunch U.S. ally.

"America is being held responsible for what is happening," said Arshid, of Jordan's Islamic Action Front. "It's supporting these corrupt regimes."

The frustration is potentially more explosive here than in more democratic parts of the developing world.

"People can tolerate anything except when it comes to food," said Labib Kamhawi, a Jordanian economist and critic of the government. "The security establishment cannot open a file for the hungry like you can for the political activists. One day you'll wake up and see havoc."

Officials throughout the Middle East have begun importing food, implementing price controls, slashing import duties for foodstuffs and locking in prices for future purchases of wheat and rice. They've also begun preparing local fields for wheat production and making monetary reforms.

Morocco has decided to spend $2 billion to raise public-sector wages. In Egypt, where subsidized bread is synonymous with the people's bond to the state, deadly riots broke out during the 1970s when then-President Anwar Sadat considered slashing the subsidies. President Hosni Mubarak is working to calm an explosive atmosphere marked by a rising inflation rate, labor unrest, strikes and fears that long bread lines may again appear.

Both Jordan and Egypt have raised government salaries and pensions by more than 20%. And Lebanon's Ministry of Social Affairs plans to increase by eightfold the number of people it aids.

Jordanian government officials consider the economic situation their highest priority, a grave, snowballing threat, analysts said. Officials remember the riots that erupted in 1971 when the price of sugar went up and in 1996 when bread prices jumped.

"The government understands the severity of the situation," said Fahd Khitan, a columnist and editor for the independent Amman daily Arab Today.

But awareness has not been enough to forestall the economic repercussions in a country where per-capita annual income is about $5,500 and 60% of workers earn fixed wages as public-sector employees.

Meat and chicken prices have risen 30% since October. The price of a dozen eggs has nearly doubled, to $2.30. And produce has climbed at an even higher rate, with squash soaring from 25 cents a pound to 80 cents and tomatoes from 9 cents a pound to 45 cents.

Jordanians say they've seen able-bodied men sifting through garbage bins. Middle-class families have begun selling off personal belongings to maintain their lifestyle or forgoing fruit or lamb for weeks.

Mohammed Hadid, a leader of a tribe from which the armed forces draw recruits, was shocked when a retired soldier from his tribe told him he had not eaten meat in five months.

"It's still sinking in," Hadid said.

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