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

Obama: I Will Do 'Everything I Can' to Close Guantanamo

US president says prison continues 'to inspire jihadists and extremists around the world' More

Sierra Leone Educates on Safe Ebola Burials

Also, country is improving at rapid response to isolated outbreaks, but health workers need to be even faster, officials say More

Christmas Gains Popularity in Vietnam

Increasingly wealthy Vietnamese embrace holiday due to its non-religious glamor, commercial appeal 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.
Jane Monheit Christmas Speciali
X
December 22, 2014 8:15 PM
Chanteuse Jane Monheit sings the holiday classic “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and explains why it’s her favorite song of the season.
Video

Video Jane Monheit Christmas Special

Chanteuse Jane Monheit sings the holiday classic “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and explains why it’s her favorite song of the season.
Video

Video US Decision on Cuba Underscores Divisions Among Miami Cubans

For decades, older, more conservative Cubans have been gathering at Café Versailles on the corner of Calle Ocho to eat Cuban food and talk politics. After hearing of President Barack Obama’s decision, a number of them gathered in front of the café with posters to protest. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on the situation.
Video

Video Three Cities Bid for Future Obama Presidential Library

President Barack Obama still has two years left in his term in office, but the effort to establish his post-presidential library is already underway. The bid for the Obama Presidential Library is down to four locations in three states -- New York, Hawaii, and Illinois. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, each of them played an important part in the president’s life before he reached the White House.
Video

Video Cuba Deal is Major Victory for Pope’s Diplomatic Initiatives

Pope Francis played a key role in brokering the US-Cuba deal that was made public earlier this week. It is the most stunning success so far in a series of peacemaking efforts by the pontiff. VOA religion reporter Jerome Socolovsky has more.
Video

Video Fears of More Political Gridlock in 2015

2014 proved to be a difficult year politically for President Barack Obama and a very good year for the U.S. Republican Party. Republican gains in the November midterm elections gave them control of the Senate and House of Representatives for the next two years -- setting the stage for more confrontation and gridlock in the final two years of the Obama presidency. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone has a preview from Washington.
Video

Video Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacks

The school dropout rate is at an all-time high in Sudan's South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during the three-year civil war between the government and SPLA-N rebel forces. Adam Bailes visited Sudan's Nuba Mountains' region and reports many children are simply too scared to go to school
Video

Video VOA Reporter Tours Devastated Peshawar School

Islamist militants wearing military uniforms and strapped with explosives attacked a military run school Tuesday in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. At least 141 people were killed in the horrific attack, most of them young students. VOA reporter Ayaz Gul visited the devastated school and attended the funeral of the principal who courageously tried to save her students from the deadly attack.
Video

Video Nigerians Fleeing Boko Haram Languish in Camp Near Capital

In its five-year effort to impose Islamic law in northeastern Nigeria, the Boko Haram extremist group has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee. Some of those who ran for their lives now live in squalor on the edges of the capital, Abuja. Chris Stein reports for VOA.

All About America

AppleAndroid