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Feeding the Arab Uprisings

I’ll be talking about the relationship between food and the uprisings.  I call them uprisings, I don’t call them revolutions, for a multitude of reasons that I will address. . . .  One of the most common assertions is that these uprisings were triggered, at least partly, by high food prices.  I would like to address this claim. . . .

Food prices at the end of 2010 were at their highest since the notorious food crisis of 2007-2008, and they seem set to continue rising.  Experts from international organizations, think tanks, and NGOs were sternly warning of a global food crisis, which could degenerate into a violent protest.  The crisis of 2007-2008 had led to global social distress and political unrest. . . .  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 protesters (not among security forces).  There had already been, in 2010, three protests in Mozambique associated with food prices, which had been violently quelled, and there had been loss of life.  The Arab world was expected to erupt.  After all, there was a history of bread riots.  These had happened in Tunisia and Jordan in the 1980s as a response to the IMF-imposed structural adjustment policies; they had happened in 2008; they will happen again.  This was the logic.

Now, why is the Arab world so prone to bread riots as they are called?  The Arab world is the most food import-dependent region in the world.  Figures vary between “80% of the food we consume is imported” and “50% of the calories we consume is imported,” but whichever figure one uses the situation is the following: we are the largest importer of food in the world.  Egypt is the largest global wheat importer.  Yet we are also the cradle of agriculture — this is where agriculture started.  We are also the point of origin of most major domesticated species in the world: wheat, barley, lentils, chickpeas, 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 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, which changes the way we eat and the diet we require.  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 the presence of large quantities of oil in this part of the world: more than 35% of the global oil reserve (Saudi Arabia is called the last “swing producer”: it means that it can increase its production in response to the market; no other country is like that, which makes Saudi Arabia very important).  This is itself of course 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 permitted, especially the support of undemocratic authoritarian hereditary corruptocracies that are subservient to them.

Subservience comes with a whole economic package, usually a hideous chimera of neoliberalism and dictatorship.  These regimes establish partnership with a small but powerful comprador business elite who uses political influence to carve highly profitable deals.  We heard about them in Egypt, and we heard about them in Tunisia.  They are usually very respected (until they fall) 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 agriculture.  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 food?  Land speculation raises prices.  In Egypt, for instance, it caused the reversal of the agricultural reforms when land rents were liberated over a period of five years.  Small farmers could not afford any more to rent the land they produced food on, and they found themselves migrating, first into the suburbs of Cairo and then into Tahrir Square.

Incidentally, Syria is the only country that used to have decent food sovereignty, food security, under a centrally planned economy.  This is disappearing today through the combined effects of droughts and the regime’s economic liberalization.

There are many other dimensions to the relationship between food and the Arab world.  For example, the Arab world is the largest producer of phosphorus, which is an essential fertilizer without which intensive agriculture that produces the food we import cannot take place.  It is also the largest buyer, which, under the laws of the market, should allow you to create huge monopsonies and to dictate the terms of the market.  Yet this is not the way things happen.

Now, what does all of this have to do with the uprisings?  Everything and nothing.

The Arab regimes immediately realized the danger that food riots could pose, so they went into the subsidy mode.  They started buying, stockpiling, and distributing food to people.  It didn’t do anything. . . .  Even when food was made available, people still rose.  They rose against the class of people who controlled the regimes and created inequalities.  They rose against those who created the system that kept them food-insecure, that kept them hostage to the benefaction of the ruler who offered them food or withdrew it.  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’s a component of citizenship.  We are not bellies waiting to be fed, we are humans seeking freedom.

This is the relationship of food with the uprisings from the point of view of the protesters.  But there is another side to this: regimes come, regimes go, but the problems remain.  In the regime changes we are seeing today in the Arab world, nobody is yet addressing the issues that I have raised.  What is the use of sovereignty, citizenship, freedom if there is no food sovereignty?  When we rise, as in uprising, what do we do next? . . .  One million people need urgent food aid.  The US and Europe are going around trying to get “deals” and influence new governments.  There are talks of a new Marshall plan.  Is this really what we want?  More foreign interference when we were seeking less interference?

Is it not time for those who participated in the uprisings to work on ideas?  Can we even have a revolution that is not based on ideas?  Here, I’d like you to remember with me the words of one of Africa’s foremost revolutionaries Amilcar Cabral: “[E]very 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.”

Rami Zurayk is Professor of Land and Water Resources at American University of Beirut (AUB).  This lecture was delivered at the Bathish Auditorium, West Hall, AUB on 7 April 2011.  The text above is an edited partial transcript of the lecture.  Read his blog Land and People at <>.  Follow Zurayk at <>.

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