When told that the French people did not have enough bread to eat, Queen Marie Antoinette is reported to have quipped famously that instead “let them eat cake.” The ensuing discontentment, which snowballed into the French Revolution, led to the overthrow of the ruling regime and the queen herself was guillotined. It may be a sheer coincidence that the Arab Spring that engulfed many countries in the Middle East too was triggered by the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor who was humiliated by the police for selling food without a valid permit. However, like in the case of the French Revolution, food was just one of the underlying issues which sparked widespread protests. Though the dust has settled on the Arab protests, which led to the ouster of many oppressive regimes in the region, the issue of food security still seems to keep the pot boiling in the Middle East region.
As the Economist pointed out in an article in March, the heart of the matter lies in the fact that the geographical region, which encompasses the Middle East and North Africa, depends more on imported food than any other area. The write-up says that most Arab countries purchase almost half of what they consume from abroad. To put things in perspective, cereal imports to the Arab world increased 13% to 66 million tons between 2007 and 2010.
Understandably, much before the Arab Spring became the toast of the media worldwide, the rise in food prices had fueled protests in countries such as Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco in 2008. Predictably, many of these nations were hotbeds of dissidence during the Arab Spring, though the revolt was not only about food.
As a Reuters article pointed out, the governments in the region won’t be able to address concerns about food security by investing in farmlands in Africa, as increasing desertification makes land available for cultivation scarce. The non-availability of land is expected to hit Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, and the center point of the Arab Spring uprising. Egypt, incidentally, is also the world’s biggest wheat importer.
The role played by food shortage in fomenting protests across the Middle East was also highlighted by a PBS Newshour write-up. It pointed out that both in Tunisia and Syria, the uprising started in rural, farming areas where people struggled to eke a living out of agriculture. The article further states that about 32% of Egypt’s population relies on farming for a living. However, the scarcity of land available has made it difficult for the new generation to continue with agricultural activities. Alarmingly, these youths who moved to cities were unable to find decent jobs as they were not qualified enough, pushing them to take to the streets in protest.
Food inflation has taken on such importance in these countries that extraordinary efforts are made to ensure that food prices are kept cheap by way of subsidies. As the Economist points out, the cost of following such policies is huge, accounting for about 4% of Egypt’s budget. Morocco plans to spend about $5 billion in 2012 on food and fuel subsidies, and many other Arab nations have also upped their subsidies on food to quell rioters.
Still, even as the Arab nations scramble to subsidize food prices, the citizens overall remain dissatisfied with the efforts of their governments to eradicate poverty. What’s more, the subsidies not only affect the nations’ health but also those of their countrymen. Availability of cheap calories has led to increased instances of obesity in countries such as Egypt and Jordan. Moreover, not every Arab nation, especially the oil importers, can afford to subsidize food.
Another factor which the Economist says makes these subsidies inefficient is the fact that they are not targeted at a specific section of the society. The end result is that the middle class pockets the bulk of the benefits, which are actually meant to reach the really poor sections of society. However, the magazine rightly points out that few governments would dare to take the political risk of taking on the dominant middle class.
Something as basic as food has the inherent power to spur protests and potentially alter the course of world history, as the French and the Middle East examples have shown. Having witnessed much mayhem and bloodshed during the Arab Spring uprising, perhaps it is up to the ruling governments in the Middle East region to ensure that food does not provide the fodder for yet another upheaval.
Postcards from Around the World
Subscribe to get our global publications by email.