News / Africa

Rising Prices Fuel Anti-Government Sentiments Across Middle East

A Syrian gas station attendant fills up a car in Damascus (file photo)
A Syrian gas station attendant fills up a car in Damascus (file photo)
Henry Ridgwell

The uprising in Tunisia against government corruption has forced other countries in the region to take notice.  Record high prices for food and oil are also fuelling anti-government feeling in many developing countries.  Analysts predict the protests will spread far beyond Tunisia’s borders.

Few people in or outside Tunisia could have predicted the tumultuous start to 2011 that greeted this country - least of all the thousands of tourists visiting for some winter sun.

Where it started

But many analysts say the causes can be traced back to a cocktail of economic inflation and political corruption that finally spilled into street protests.

"Obviously the economic situation was a very important driver in the protests in Tunisia," explained analyst Maha Azzam, a north Africa expert at the London-based Chatham House.  "But I think the key was the political situation and the reality of a dictatorial regime having survived for so long without allowing participation or accountability."

Azzam says such conditions are replicated in countries across the Middle East and north Africa - giving the potential for further unrest.

Cost of living

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization says the prices of basic foodstuffs like grains, sugar and meat are reaching new highs - even exceeding the peaks seen in 2008, which triggered social unrest in several developing countries.

"In low-income countries, people spend a very high percentage of their disposable income on food," noted Professor Tim Lang teaches Food Policy at London’s City University, "and when, as now, you have got oil prices and world commodity prices going up, they are squeezed, it turns into hunger, turns into empty shops, sometimes turns into empty mealtimes."

Anger at government

Professor Lang says that while rising food prices may fuel resentment, it is rarely the primary cause of unrest.  In Algeria there have been a series of anti-government protests in recent days.  Residents here, like Muhammed, say their anger is directed at the government.

"Our problem is not to do with cooking oil, sugar or semolina - our problem is with the injustice, the plundering of wealth and oppression," he said.

Domino effect?

Protests have also erupted in Egypt.  A man set himself on fire outside the parliament building in an apparent echo of the self-immolation in Tunisia, which many analysts pinpoint as the trigger of the unrest there. 

"Over the next few months leading up to the presidential elections, if we see protests on the streets in Egypt then we are underway to some very serious change in a key country in the region," warned north Africa expert Maham Azzam.

Azzam says governments across north Africa and the Middle East will be having intense discussions with their security and military chiefs about how to prevent a repeat of the so-called jasmine revolution.

 

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