News / Middle East

High Food Prices Helped Spark Egypt Protests

Food production has not kept pace with population growth

A man carries bread bought from a bakery in Cairo on February 6, 2011.
A man carries bread bought from a bakery in Cairo on February 6, 2011.

Multimedia

Audio

Many developing countries are closely watching the role escalating food prices is playing in the turmoil in North Africa.

Government repression, corruption, unemployment and poverty united protesters to oust Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last week. But experts say the rising price of food was one of the sparks that set off the historic protests.

The global price of wheat has risen 60 percent in the past year, and Egypt is the world's largest wheat importer. But that was not always the case.

"I find it actually ironic that bread lines are what provoked the latest political unrest," says policy analyst Marie Brill, with the advocacy group ActionAid, "considering that in the 1960s, Egypt had been a breadbasket (major wheat producer) and able to meet its own wheat needs."

Focus on exports

So what happened? Brill says it goes back to the 1980s and 90s, when the United States, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund encouraged developing countries to import grain produced cheaply in the U.S. and elsewhere and to focus their farming on export crops.

"This has been a policy that has been pushed around the world, not just in Egypt or in the Middle East," Brill says. "But what we've found was that, as Egypt became more and more dependent on [imported] wheat, Egypt also became more and more vulnerable to price hikes and price volatility."

Egyptians shop at a vegetable market in Cairo on February 6, 2011.
Egyptians shop at a vegetable market in Cairo on February 6, 2011.

Bad governance

Others say the roots of Egypt's vulnerability go much deeper. Democracy activist Mohamed Eljahmi blames 1950s land reform laws and bad governance in Egypt, not economic policies emanating from Washington.

"That has been used as a crutch by Arab regimes to justify their failures," Eljahmi says. "The problem is, there is a legacy of corruption. There is a lack of accountability. So, the failure really rests with the nature of the military regime in Egypt. Not the IMF or anything."

Subsidized bread

Whatever the cause of the failure, Egypt's food production has not kept pace with its population growth.

As prices climbed in recent months, the Egyptian government had to pay dearly to import wheat for its subsidized bread program. The country was already deeply in debt, which limited how it could respond to the protests.

"So, they really didn't have any scope for doing what an oil-producing country like Algeria could," says senior fellow Mohsin Khan at the Peterson Institute of International Economics. "Which is, you have unrest and you can throw money at it."

Algeria has made huge wheat purchases and set price controls following street protests. Not all citizens have been placated, and some protesters returned to the streets this weekend.

Other countries watching

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, there are 77 low-income countries that rely heavily on food imports.

Khan says policymakers in these countries are going to say, "'Look, we have large-scale unemployment.We have high food prices rising and therefore pushing up inflation. This is likely to trigger protests in our country. So, what do we need to do?'"

Targeted aid, not subsidies

Khan says poor countries need to target help to the poor, rather than blanketing the economy with price controls or food subsidies, which are expensive and bad for the economy in the long run.

But they are among the easiest options. And Khan adds that people in other repressed countries may be inspired by events in Egypt and Tunisia, where food prices also contributed to the ouster of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali  last month. He says governments will likely be tempted to step in rather than risk protests.

"It's going to be very interesting to see how it plays out in terms of who's going to [act] first," he says. "Are the protests going to come first, or [are the governments going to] start subsidizing food?"

Many experts agree the likelihood of protests is rising along with the cost of food.

 

NEW: Follow our Middle East reports on Twitter
and discuss them on our Facebook page.

You May Like

Video VOA EXCLUSIVE: Iraq President Vows to Fight IS 'Until They Are Killed or We Die'

In wide-ranging interview with VOA Persian service reporter, Fuad Masum describes conflict as new type of fight that will take time to win More

Video Russian Anti-Corruption Campaigner Slams Putin’s Crackdown on Dissent

In interview with VOA Alexei Navalny says he believes new law against 'undesirable NGOs' part of move to keep Russian president in power More

Video On The Scene: In Ethiopia, 'Are You a Journalist?' Is a Loaded Question

VOA's Anita Powell describes the difficulties faced by reporters in fully conveying the story in a country where people are reticent to share their true opinions More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Expelled from Pakistan, Afghan Refugees Return to Increased Hardshipi
X
Ayesha Tanzeem
May 28, 2015 6:48 PM
Undocumented refugees returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan have no jobs, no support system, and no home return to, and international aid agencies say they and the government are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Ayesha Tanzeem has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Expelled from Pakistan, Afghan Refugees Return to Increased Hardship

Undocumented refugees returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan have no jobs, no support system, and no home return to, and international aid agencies say they and the government are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Ayesha Tanzeem has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Britain Makes Controversial Move to Crack Down on Extremism

Britain is moving to tighten controls on extremist rhetoric, even when it does not incite violence or hatred -- a move that some are concerned might unduly restrict basic freedoms. It is an issue many countries are grappling with as extremist groups gain power in the Middle East, fueled in part by donations and fighters from the West. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video Floodwaters Recede in Houston, but Rain Continues

Many parts of Texas are recovering from one of the worst natural disasters to hit the southwestern state. Heavy rains on Monday and early Tuesday caused rivers to swell in eastern and central Texas, washing away homes and killing at least 13 people. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, floodwaters are receding slowly in the country's fourth-largest city, and there likely is to be more rain in the coming days.
Video

Video 3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Car

Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Al-Shabab Recruitment Drive Still on In Kenya

The al-Shabab militants that have long battled for control of Somalia also have recruited thousands of young people in Kenya, leaving many families disconsolate. Mohammed Yusuf recently visited the Kenyan town of Isiolo, and met with relatives of those recruited, as well as a many who have helped with the recruiting.
Video

Video US Voters Seek Answers From Presidential Candidates on IS Gains

The growth of the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria comes as the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign kicks off in the Midwest state of Iowa.   As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, voters want to know how the candidates would handle recent militant gains in the Middle East.
Video

Video A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensions

When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video Film Festival Looks at Indigenous Peoples, Culture Conflict

A recent Los Angeles film festival highlighted the plight of people caught between two cultures. Mike O'Sullivan has more on the the Garifuna International Film Festival, a Los Angeles forum created by a woman from Central America who wants the world to know more about her culture.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.
Video

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.

VOA Blogs