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

Sunni-Shi’ite Divide Threatens Middle East Stability

Analysts say ancient dispute that traces back to Islamic Revolution is fueling modern day unrest More

Shifting Demographics Lie Beneath Racial Tensions in Ferguson

As Missouri suburb morphed from majority white to majority black, observers say power structure remained static More

Video Artists Shun Russia's Profanity Law

Restriction is toughest since Soviet era, though critics reject move as patronizing and ineffective act of censorship in line with a string of conservative morality laws 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.
Native Bees May Help Save Cropsi
X
Deborah Block
August 22, 2014 12:23 AM
U.S. President Barack Obama has called for a federal strategy to promote the health of bees that have been declining. The honeybee has been waning due to parasites, disease and pesticides. Wild bees may be used to take over their role as crop pollinators. Scientists first need to learn a lot more about wild bees, says biologist Sam Droege, who is pioneering the first national inventory on native bees. VOA’s Deborah Block went to his research laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, to bring you more.
Video

Video Native Bees May Help Save Crops

U.S. President Barack Obama has called for a federal strategy to promote the health of bees that have been declining. The honeybee has been waning due to parasites, disease and pesticides. Wild bees may be used to take over their role as crop pollinators. Scientists first need to learn a lot more about wild bees, says biologist Sam Droege, who is pioneering the first national inventory on native bees. VOA’s Deborah Block went to his research laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, to bring you more.
Video

Video US Defense Officials Plan for Long-Term Strategy to Contain Islamic State

U.S. defense officials say American air strikes in Iraq have helped deter Islamic State militants for the time being, but that a broad international effort is needed to defeat the extremists permanently. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned Thursday that the group formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, is better organized, and financially and militarily stronger than any other known terrorist group. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Drug-Resistant Malaria Spreads in Southeast Asia

On Thailand’s border with Myanmar, also known as Burma, a malaria research and treatment clinic is stepping up efforts to eliminate a drug-resistant form of the parasite - before it spreads abroad. Steve Sandford reports from Mae Sot, Thailand.
Video

Video Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbas

The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Nigeria's 'Nollywood' Movie Industry Rolls in High Gear

Twenty years after its birth in a video shop in Lagos, Nigeria's "Nollywood" is one of the most prolific film industries on earth. Despite low budgets and whirlwind production schedules, Nigerian films are wildly popular in Africa and industry professionals say they hope, in the future, their films will be as great in quality as they are in quantity. Heather Murdock has more for VOA from Lagos.
Video

Video UN Launches 'Biggest Aid Operation in 30 Years' in Iraq

The United Nations has launched what it describes as one of the biggest aid operations in 30 years in northern Iraq, as hundreds of thousands of refugees flee the extremist Sunni militant group calling itself the Islamic State. As Kurdish and Iraqi forces battle the Sunni insurgents, the fighting has forced more people to flee their homes. Kurdish authorities say the international community must act now to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Cambodian American Hip Hop Artist Sings of Personal Struggles

A growing underground movement of Cambodian American hip hop artists is rapping about the struggles of living in urban America. Most, if not all of them, are refugees or children of refugees who came to the United States from Cambodia to escape the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s. Through their music, the artists hope to give voice to immigrants who have been struggling quietly for years. Elizabeth Lee reports from Long Beach, California.
Video

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.

AppleAndroid