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The Bread of Revolution: Food Prices and Uprisings in the Middle East

July 19, 2011

The food of the poor: One of the Egyptian Arabic terms for bread, 'aish, literally means "life." (Although this photo was actually taken at an upscale restaurant that bakes its own bread...)

Although I am as interested as anyone in the Egyptian uprisings as a social movement and a form of cultural production, I keep emphasizing to my students that there are crucial economic issues underlying these issues.

An op-ed piece by Rami Zurayk entitled “Use Your Loaf” in the UK newspaper Observer does a very nice job of linking the global food economy to the so-called “Arab Spring.”

Zurayk’s main argument is that under globalization, the staple foods of the poor have become more and more expensive, and this served as an important element in the uprisings. He focuses on grain as a case in point. Egypt, once the grainery of the Roman Empire is now the world’s largest importer of wheat.

One of his key points:

When grain prices spiked in 2007-2008, Egypt’s bread prices rose 37%. With unemployment rising as well, more people depended on subsidised bread – but the government did not make any more available. Egypt’s annual food price inflation continued and had hit 18.9% before the fall of President Mubarak.

My colleague Don Cole/Abdullah Talib once told me that one could tell the political economic history of Egypt by the price of bread, and people’s reactions to it. Zurayk echoes this notion:

“Bread riots” have been occurring regularly since the mid 1980s, following policies brought to us by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Among these were the reduction of agricultural subsidies and the encouragement of production of fruits and vegetables for export, at the expense of investing in local grain production. Export of value-added produce and the import of basic commodities such as wheat were monopolised by a small group of “entrepreneurs” protected by the security state who financially backed the ruling elite. The powerful countries provided encouragement and support. The US gave Egypt around $1.7bn last year, exceeded only by the $2.4bn it gave to Israel. Tunisia under President Ben Ali was viewed as the IMF model of “growth” and France offered to support him militarily through the uprising.

All of which supports my contention that the interim government, and the first couple of elected governments, face enormous economic challenges in trying to undo the damage of decades of neoliberal “structural adjustments” made worse by “crony capitalism.”

And they will receive little support from the usual sources which continue to link “free” markets to democracy building (which is one reason the Egyptian government is going to try to get through it’s first post-Mubarak year without loans).

Zurayk concludes that it is in the region’s interest for these new governments to rethink how they are integrated into the global economic system if they hope to be responsive to the economic pressures that helped compel people into the streets:

Three trading giants, Cargill, ADM and Bunge control 90% of the global grain trade. They are all based in the United States. We know that if we do not improve food security we will remain hostage to those in power. Already the Egyptian interim government has decided to support farmers who produce wheat instead of the importers. It is too early to tell the extent of the programme but advisers to the new Egyptian agriculture minister have confirmed that it includes higher prices paid for local wheat, seed supply, agricultural extension assistance and improved local storage and transport.

Zurayk has been blogging about these issues for many years now at Land and People. His book on agronomy, society and culture was delayed a year so he could revise it in light of the Arab Spring. It is now out as Food, Farming and Freedom: Sowing the Arab Spring from Just World Books.

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