Use your loaf: why food prices were crucial in the Arab spring
by Rami Zurayk
People in Arab countries have always relied on bread as a low-cost source of sustenance. In Yemen alone there are more than 20 different kinds of bread, each made and baked differently. In Egypt, bread is known as aish, meaning “life”. It is the inseparable companion of all dishes, even some desserts. The Fertile Crescent, stretching from the Egyptian Nile to the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates, is where agriculture began, where wheat, lentils, chickpeas, sheep and goats and olives were first cultivated. Today, that same region is the largest importer of food in the world.
The famous ‘bread helmet’ from Tahrir Square. Photograph: Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi/Reuters
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.
Fifty per cent of the calories consumed by Egyptians originate outside its borders. Egypt is the world’s largest wheat importer, and no country in the region (except for Syria) produces more than a small fraction of the wheat it consumes. Should the global markets be unable to provide a country’s need, or if there are not enough funds available to finance purchases and to offer price support, then the food of the poor will become inaccessible to them. Already, in Egypt and Yemen, more than 40% of the population live below the poverty line and suffer from some form of malnutrition. Most of the poor in these countries have no access to social safety nets. Images of bread became central to the Egyptian protests, from young boys selling kaik, a breakfast bread, to one protester’s improvised helmet made from bread loaves taped to his head. Although the Arab revolutions were united under the slogan “the people want to bring down the regime” not “the people want more bread”, food was a catalyst.
“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.
The first protests of the Arab spring in Tunisia in December 2010 were quickly dismissed as another bout of bread riots. Arab regimes responded by making adjustments to food prices and offering more subsidies. Increasing the subsidy slightly relieves the popular pressure but also increases the profit margins for importers and manufacturers. But this time round, truckloads of flour did not do the trick.
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.
We have tasted the bread of liberty and we want more of it.
Rami Zurayk is a professor of agricultural and food sciences at the American University of Beirut and author of Food, Farming and Freedom: Sowing the Arab Spring (Just World Books)