* Egypt is world's biggest wheat importer
* GASC's regional specialists work around the clock
* Subsidised bread a staple, shortages have provoked unrest
* Nomani appears secure as changes sweep Egypt
By Shaimaa Fayed
CAIRO, Oct 4 Nomani Nasr Nomani is arguably the
most powerful figure on the global wheat market; he is also the
man who ensured Egypt's revolution for freedom didn't turn into
"a revolution of hunger".
A short walk from Tahrir Square, cauldron of last year's
uprising, Nomani works in a run-down Cairo building as chief
grains buyer for Egypt, the world's biggest importer of wheat.
Beyond a tarnished entrance plaque reading General Authority
for Supply Commodities (GASC) and up a scruffy staircase next to
a pile of broken shelves, the unassuming 58-year-old sits in his
office, watching grains prices flashing over his trading screen.
However out-of-date GASC's Cairo headquarters look, when
Nomani announces a tender to import wheat or declares he has
made a purchase, the impact is felt across the globe: prices can
swing on futures markets in Chicago, Paris or Sydney.
For Nomani, though, the test of his skill is not how far
futures shift but whether he keeps 83 million Egyptians fed.
After all, the uprising which toppled President Hosni Mubarak
was as much about poverty as political reform, and began with
chants of "Bread, freedom, social justice!".
Aware that any disruption to subsidised bread supplies could
provoke unrest - as it has over the years - he describes his
role without understatement as ensuring "the revolution for
freedom would not turn into a revolution of hunger".
"We protect the covenant of keeping Egypt intact," Nomani
told Reuters, speaking from behind his large wooden desk at GASC
where he is vice chairman.
Once the granary of the Roman Empire, Egypt can no longer
feed its modern population which is mostly crammed into the
fertile Nile valley and delta, a narrow strip hemmed in by huge
expanses of arid land.
Egypt therefore has to buy abroad about half the 18.8
million tonnes of wheat it consumes a year. The U.S. Department
of Agriculture estimates it will import 9 million tonnes in the
year 2012/13, ahead of Brazil on 7 million tonnes.
To the relief of many traders, there is no sign for now that
Nomani, a civil servant at GASC for almost all his career, will
be moved from his post despite profound changes since the end of
No Egyptian leader, including the new Islamist President
Mohamed Mursi, can afford to disrupt the nation's bakeries.
These churn out the subsidised saucer-sized flat loaves selling
for just 5 piastres (less than 1 U.S. cent), a staple for many
Egyptian families struggling to make ends meet.
Mursi has, like rulers before him, promised to keep bread
subsidies for all even though he is reviewing ways to target
fuel and other price support to the most needy.
AFFILIATION TO EGYPT
Nomani - who has served under Mubarak, the military and now
Mursi - stresses his role as the veteran civil servant.
"GASC is responsible for food security in the country," he
said. "Therefore I have no political affiliation to a particular
faction ... My affiliation is to Egypt."
Even when tear gas canisters and rubber bullets flew through
the streets around the GASC headquarters, Nomani and his team
maintained wheat stocks throughout the uprising.
Each Egyptian tender, under which GASC invites offers from
traders to supply wheat, has an effect far beyond the country's
borders. On Sept. 6, Chicago wheat futures jumped more than 2
percent after GASC bought almost half a million tonnes.
The government spends more than $5.5 billion a year on food
subsidies, which also cover items such as rice, oil and sugar.
Despite the heavy cost, food subsidies have been a pillar of
Egyptian economic policy since socialist President Gamal Abdel
Nasser began them in the 1950s.
Later, riots broke out when his successor President Anwar
Sadat tried to raise bread prices, forcing a U-turn.
As recently as 2008, Mubarak also faced protests over bread
shortages. Yet subsidised supplies were not disrupted even
during the most tumultuous days during and after the 2011
uprising. Traders say that is in large part thanks to Nomani.
"He knows what he's doing and I would say that the work done
by GASC so far has been impressive. They know when to enter the
market and they give themselves a lot of flexibility," said a
Cairo-based trader, who has known Nomani for over a decade.
NIGHT AND DAY
Nomani, once a keen soccer player who now prefers reading
and playing chess, has worked at GASC for more than 30 years. As
vice chairman since 2009 he leads a dealing room where
specialist staff cover every region from which Egypt buys wheat,
working around the clock.
"They live according to the timings of the countries they
cover. Some come very early, some later, some stay at night till
the exchange in question closes," he said. "I stay in front of
the screens all day and the team brings their analyses to me."
GASC announces it is seeking wheat late at night in Egypt,
and decides about its purchases the following afternoon. Once
Nomani has reviewed the bids GASC announces its purchases,
making a burst of headlines on the terminals of Reuters and
other news agencies.
Some people criticise this system, saying that Japan for
example has a better model in holding tenders on a set day each
week. Nomani defends GASC's method, explaining that Japan buys
smaller quantities than Egypt and seeks a different quality.
Some traders worry that the vastly experienced Nomani could
be swept away in Egypt's revolutionary fervour, although there
is no imminent sign of that.
"I would hate to see him go or be replaced by someone who
doesn't have his background in dealing with the organisation and
what it involves," said another Cairo-based trader said.
"After they appointed the new supply minister though, we
were reassured that the GASC team, at least Nomani, were here to
stay," said the trader, who like others did not want to comment
openly on a man they do business with regularly.
President Mursi appointed Abu Zeid Mohamed Abu Zeid as
supply minister in August, a veteran of another government food
purchasing agency, the Food Industries Holding Company.
Abu Zeid also sat on the committee that decides Egypt's
wheat purchases with Nomani. This put the minds of many traders
at ease and dampened speculation about Nomani's future.
Nomani himself is sanguine, saying even if he were to go
GASC's work would not be disrupted. "I am an entity that deals
with the outside world," he said. "So I believe in change, even
at the level of my own entity."
"Even if change arrives to my own position, there are fixed
files I would give to the next person, as well as all my
experiences and all the market directions because Egypt is going
through change," he said.
However, Nomani seems well-suited to navigate difficult
waters, with his inside knowledge of GASC accumulated since he
joined in 1979 as the head of a research unit.
Nomani and his team at GASC have snapped up almost seven
months' wheat stocks for Egypt, buying more than 1 million
tonnes in September alone, mostly from that region.
He seems unflappable even as global markets grapple with
worries about exports from Black Sea nations suffering drought
such as Ukraine and Russia, Egypt's top supplier. "A commodity
like wheat transcends all political and ideological
differences," he said. "Dealings here are at the human level."