This is the text of my talk at the AUB event:
Engaging Change in the Middle East- Reflections on Regional Transformation
Food and the Arab Uprisings
April 7, 2011
The Arab Uprisings or Arab Spring or Arab Revolutions, whichever way one wishes to call the sea of change that is sweeping through the Arab World, have elicited plenty of debates and polemics. But one thing all professional and amateur analysts agree on is that it is the most important event of the past 50 years, since the decolonization process. Analysts also concur that it is far too early to understand how and why did this process take place at exactly this juncture in time. Yet, they cannot help themselves (and neither can I) to try and provide explanations and interpretations. One of the most common assertions is that the uprisings were triggered, at least partly by high food prices. Just try Googling “food” and “Arab uprising” together and your browser will be swamped with articles and posts irrefutably attributing the Arab protests to the escalating world food prices. I would like to address this claim.
To the external observer, this is a no-brainer. Food prices at the end of 2010 were at their highest since the notorious food crisis of 2007-2008, and they seemed set to continue rising. Experts from international organizations, think tanks and NGOs were sternly warning of a global food crisis, which could degenerate into violent protests. The crisis of 2007-2008 had led to global social distress and political unrest. And while Arab governments had taken some measures to mitigate subsequent crises, these appeared to analysts to be insufficient.
The 2007-2008 crisis had led to riots in several Arab countries, including Egypt and Yemen, and these had resulted in loss of life among the protestors. There had already been, in 2010, street protests in Mozambique which had been violently quelled. The Arab World was expected to erupt. After all, there was a history of “bread riots”. They had happened in Tunisia and Jordan in the 1980’s as a response to the IMF imposed structural adjustment policies. They had happened in 2008 in the wake of the food crisis. They will happen again: that was the logic.
Why would the Arab World be so prone to bread riots? Well the region is wholly dependent on food imports. Figures of Arab food insecurity vary between “80% of the food consumed is imported” to “50% of the calories consumed are imported” depending on the sources used. But whichever way one looks at it, the situation is the following: we are the largest importer of food in the world and Egypt alone is largest global wheat importer. Yet, we also are the cradle of agriculture, and the center of origin of most of the major domesticated species in the world: wheat, barley, lentils, chickpea, olives, grapes, goats and sheep. A large part of the region used to be known as the Fertile Crescent. It still looks like a crescent, but the fertility is long gone.
The causes of our food dependency are complex and composite. They include ecological, structural and political reasons. The region is drought-prone and fertile lands are limited. It has one of the highest population growth rates in the world and is rapidly urbanizing. It also suffers from what I call the double oil curse.
You may be familiar with the concept of the oil curse. Lured by the easy rents obtained from the oil economy, states tend to decrease their investments in the productive sectors, which eventually leads to lower rates of economic growth. For multiple reasons, the farm sector of the Arab World was the first to suffer from this curse. The second level of this curse is that the presence of large quantities of oil in this part of the world (more than 35% of global oil reserve, Saudi Arabia is the last “swing producer” meaning that it can increase its output in response to increased demand) is itself a source of troubles. It attracts the voracity of rich, powerful industrialized nations whose appetite for fossil fuel is insatiable. In their bid to control resources, anything is allowed, especially the support of subservient undemocratic authoritarian hereditary corruptocracies.
Subservience comes with a whole economic package, usually a hideous chimera of neoliberalism and dictatorship. These regimes establish partnership with a small but powerful compradorial business elite who uses political influence to carve highly profitable deals. They are usually very respected and earn the name “entrepreneurs”. They are more interested in trade, import, export and real estate speculation that in investing in the productive sectors and can strongly influence policy. This contributes to the further decline of farming and of local food production: why invest in farming and waste good earning opportunities through buying and selling? The natural next step is real estate speculation, in which land becomes a commodity the exchange value of which is far higher than its use value, removing it from its agrarian vocation. In Egypt, for instance, the liberalization package imposed in the 1990’s reversed the partial land reform of Nasser’s era by liberating land rents and paving the way for the expulsion of farmers who then migrated towards the cities. Many among them ended up in Tahrir square.
Incidentally, Syria is the only country that used to be reasonably food secure from a combination of local and external sources under a centrally planned economy. This is disappearing today through the combined effects of droughts and economic liberalization.
There are many other dimensions to the relationship between food and the Arab World. For example the region is the main producer of phosphorus in the world. Morocco alone controls 40% of global production. Jordan is a major producer. Phosphorus is an essential plant nutrient and a non-renewable resource. It is used to make phosphorus fertilizer, without which modern food production could not take place. Oil, another Arab specialty, is also essential to modern food production, and food prices are largely tied to oil prices. Moreover, the Arab world being the largest global food importer should allow it to create effective monopsonies and obtain favorable trading terms. But none of this is ever used to improve food security. Instead, we are made to feel powerless and dependent.
But what does this have to do with the uprisings? The answer is: everything and nothing.
For one, Arab regimes initially fully subscribed to the food riots theory and dismissed the uprisings as a yet another protest of the hungry. They took measures such as subsidizing essential foodstuffs and symbolically raising wages. They thought that they could quell the popular uprisings with a few tons of bread. They did not realize that we were hungry for freedom, something they cannot buy and distribute to shut us up.
This is not to say that socio-economic realities did not play a role. Food prices were used to mobilize for the protests. But the people did not rise to demand more bread. The revolts were directed against the regime: the dictators and their associates from the rich ruling business class. They rose against those who create the system that keeps them food insecure, that keeps them hostage to the benefaction of the ruler. They rose because the moral economy of the state had collapsed, and with this collapse came food insecurity. Food security is a key determinant of dignity. It is a determinant of freedom. It is a basic right, not a charity. People want food security because it is a component of citizenship. We are not bellies waiting to be fed, we are human beings seeking freedom.
But there is another side to this issue: Regimes come, regimes go come but this does not necessarily mean that the problems disappear. How can we talk about sovereignty in the absence of food sovereignty? We rose and brought down some symbols of the regime. What are we to do next? There are millions of small farmers who can barely feed themselves. They live, forgotten, in the margins of our world. Illiteracy is overwhelming; poverty affects 40% of the Egyptian people at least. One million people need urgent food aid in the wake of the uprisings. The US and Europe are going around trying to make development “deals” and influence new governments. There are talks of new Marshall plan for the Arab World. Is this really what we want? More foreign interference when we were seeking less interference?
Is it not time to work on new ideas on how to change our world, free it from need and make it fair, just, equitable and sustainable? Can we even have a revolution that is not based on ideas? I will conclude by reminding ourselves of the words of the great African revolutionary Amilcar Cabral's (I never tire from this quote): "every practice produces a theory, and that if it is true that a revolution can fail even though it be based on perfectly conceived theories, nobody has yet made a successful revolution without a revolutionary theory". It is time for us to develop our own revolutionary theory and to practice it.