Egypt: Food prices crisis helped fuel revolt

February 26, 2011
Anti-government protest in Egypt, February 1.

Hidden beneath the spectacular street battles that forced Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak out of office was a trigger that exists in dozens of countries throughout the world — food.

Or, more specifically, the lack of it.

Commentators have focused on the corruption of the dictatorship, or the viral effects of the Tunisian uprising or what appears to be akin to an Arab political awakening.

But the inability of the Egyptian regime to ensure a steady flow of food staples should also be viewed as a critical factor driving this seemingly spontaneous movement for freedom.

Egypt is far from an isolated case when it comes to food shortages. Since 2008, rising food prices have resulted in 40 mass riots across the globe and the United Nations reports that 37 countries face a food crisis.

World prices for basic food commodities such as corn, sugar and beef have all spiked in the past 12 months resulting, in many regions, in sharp reductions in food intake.

The October 26, 2010 British Guardian said the governments of Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Indonesia, Brazil and the Philippines had all issued warnings in 2010 about impending food shortages.

What makes Egypt special in regards to food shortages is the triple convergence of ecological devastation-induced harvest reductions, government corruption and ineptitude, and a resulting reliance on a global food market inflated by global environmental degradation and capitalist speculation.

The Nile River sits at the core of the severe environmental decline in the region. An over-reliance on its resources, combined with long-term negative effects from damming projects, have caused water scarcities and yield declines in arable land.

The resulting crisis caused skyrocketing prices for potable water — soft drink is now cheaper than water in many parts of Egypt — and reductions in the planting of necessary crops, a May 30, 2010 BBC Worldwide Monitoring report said.

In November, the Mubarak government announced severe restrictions on the production of staple crops such as rice.

The reduced rice production had spiralling effects. Prices rose sharply, a key nutritional staple was removed from the poor and, because rice is also a key export crop, agricultural labourers were left jobless.

All this was done via the usual autocratic decree from Cairo, Dar ed Salaam said in the The Citizen on November 24.

The Mubarak government has, for many years, managed the food crisis with an old combination succinctly summarised at the turn of the 20th century by Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz’s slogan “pan o palo” (bread or the stick).

Instead of allowing workers to bargain for wages that might meet the increased food costs, Mubarak repressed the labour movement through a reliance on a police apparatus that had swelled to an estimated one police operative for every 37 citizens.

At the same time, his regime refused for the past 26 years to raise the minimum wage, AfricaNews said on June 23, 2010.

He also tried to create a state monopoly on the production and distribution of low-cost bread. When black market activity threatened this monopoly, he had the military take over the enterprise.

All this created a dual food dependency for the country. Egypt remained a main recipient of US aid, about US$1.8 billion a year, and developed a dangerous linkage to global food markets.

This link can be seen most clearly in the wheat market, in which the Egyptian state was forced to make mass purchases of wheat to satisfy rising food demands and maintain social order.

This system seemed to work until Russia, the third-largest exporter of wheat, experienced its worst drought in 50 years in 2010.

Prices skyrocketed on the global market. The Egyptian government, the largest importer of Russian wheat, was forced in August to pay US$270 a ton for wheat that had cost $238 in July, the Canadian National Post’s Financial Post & FP Investing said on August 5.

The government claimed, as late as mid-2010, that wheat self-sufficiency was its goal. However, the country now relies on foreign markets for 40% of its consumption.

The environmental limits imposed by the above-mentioned water scarcity on the Nile also ensure that the lack of food self-sufficiency will rise in the future.

Though it was a critical strategy to maintain political order, Egyptians do not live on wheat alone. Soaring bread prices, lack of rice and water scarcity intersected with sharp rises in the costs of other basic foodstuffs.

This year, vegetable prices soared by 50% and meat and poultry rose by 28.6%. Reuters said on October 19 that the tomato crop was particularly poor and harvests declined as much as 75% in some areas.

The revolt in Egypt is more than just a movement for political freedom. It may be one of the first instances of a political movement that exposes the sharp limitations of the current global system of food production.

The lack of food was a trigger for this uprising. It was the severing of a final link with a deeply authoritarian regime operating within limits imposed by its own corruption and repression, the natural world and an exceedingly unnatural global market for food.

One lesson that can be drawn from this moment is that it is vitally necessary to create another kind of global system for the production and distribution of food.

No amount of political democracy in Egypt will solve its food crisis by itself since, for the foreseeable future, the country remains dependent on the global marketplace for critical food supplies.

Capitalist values built into these markets ensure that they serve the profit interests of the big food conglomerates. Ecological damage pushes further reliance on these same markets.

A new system anchored on socialist notions of global equity and ecological sustainability would work together with the demands for political freedom in Egypt and many other places in the world.

[Reprinted from Billy Wharton is co-chair of the Socialist Party USA and the editor of]

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