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 Snowstorm Sweeps Northeastern US

'This is nothing like we feared it would be,' New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio says; he had warned storm could be one of worst in city history More

Millions of Displaced Nigerians Struggle With Daily Existence

Government acknowledges over a million people displaced in 2014 due to fight against Boko Haram insurgency More

Facebook: Internal Error to Blame for Outages

Temporary outage appeared to spill over and temporarily slow or block traffic to other major Internet sites 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.
Obama Urges Closer Economic Ties During Historic India Visiti
X
Aru Pande
January 26, 2015 9:33 PM
U.S. President Barack Obama says the United States and India must do better to capitalize on untapped potential in their economic relationship - by removing some of the roadblocks to greater trade and investment. As VOA correspondent Aru Pande reports from New Delhi, Obama spoke after participating in India’s Republic Day celebration.
Video

Video Obama Urges Closer Economic Ties During Historic India Visit

U.S. President Barack Obama says the United States and India must do better to capitalize on untapped potential in their economic relationship - by removing some of the roadblocks to greater trade and investment. As VOA correspondent Aru Pande reports from New Delhi, Obama spoke after participating in India’s Republic Day celebration.
Video

Video US, EU Threaten New Russia Sanctions Over Ukraine

U.S. President Barack Obama has blamed Russia for an attack by Ukrainian separatists that left dozens dead in the port of Mariupol and cast further doubt on the viability of last year’s cease-fire with the Kyiv government. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports from Washington.
Video

Video White House Grapples With Yemen Counterterrorism Strategy

Reports say the U.S. has carried out a drone strike on suspected militants in Yemen, the first after President Barack Obama offered reassurances the U.S. is continuing its counterterrorism operations in the country. The future of those operations has been in question following the collapse last week of Yemen’s government. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Kerry Warns Against Violence in Nigeria Election

US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Nigeria Sunday in a show of the level of concern within the U.S. and the international community over next month’s presidential election. Chris Stein reports.
Video

Video Zoo Animals Show Their Artistic Sides

The pursuit of happiness is so important, America's founding fathers put it in the Declaration of Independence. Any zookeeper will tell you animals need enrichment, just like humans do. So painting, and even music, are part of the Smithsonian National Zoo's program to keep the animals happy. VOA’s June Soh met some animal artists at the zoo in Washington. Faith Lapidus narrates.
Video

Video Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youth

Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Saudi, Yemen Developments Are Sudden Complications for Obama

The death of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah and the collapse of Yemen’s government have cast further uncertainty on U.S. efforts to fight militants in the Middle East and also contain Iran’s influence in the region. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports on the new complications facing the Obama administration and its Middle East policy.
Video

Video Progress, Some Areas of Disagreement in Cuba Talks

U.S. and Cuban officials are reporting progress from initial talks in Havana on re-establishing diplomatic ties. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State (for Western Hemisphere Affairs) Roberta Jacobson said while there was agreement on a broad range of issues, there also are some “profound disagreements” between Washington and Havana. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins has the story.
Video

Video US, Japan Offer Lessons as Eurozone Launches Huge Stimulus

The Euro currency has fallen sharply after the European Central Bank announced a bigger-than-expected $67 billion-a-month quantitative easing program Thursday - commonly seen as a form of printing new money. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London on whether the move might rescue the eurozone economy -- and what lessons have been learned from similar programs around the world.
Video

Video Nigerian Elections Pose Concern of Potential Conflict in 'Middle Belt'

Nigeria’s north-central state of Kaduna has long been the site of fighting between Muslims and Christians as well as between people of different ethnic groups. As the February elections approach, community and religious leaders are making plans they hope will keep the streets calm after results are announced. Chris Stein reports from the state capital, Kaduna.
Video

Video As Viewership Drops, Obama Puts His Message on YouTube

Ratings reports show President Obama’s State of the Union address this week drew the lowest number of viewers for this annual speech in 15 years. White House officials anticipated this, and the president has decided to take a non-traditional approach to getting his message out. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video S. Korean Businesses Want to End Trade Restrictions With North

Business leaders in South Korea are calling for President Park Geun-hye to ease trade restrictions with North Korea that were put in place in 2010 after the sinking of a South Korean warship.Pro-business groups argue that expanding trade and investment is not only good for business, it is also good for long-term regional peace and security. VOA’s Brian Padden reports.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid