How many of history’s great revolutions were sparked by sheer, human hunger? In 2008, global food prices spiked, with the cost of basic crops doubling. In the two years that followed, Egyptians saw their food prices increase by some 40 per cent – in 2011, as we know, the Arab Spring broke across the Middle East, triggered by the self-immolation of a Tunisian food seller.
How likely are such spates of unrest to happen again? Very likely, given that – due to the worst drought in the US in living memory – the price of wheat and maize have soared 50 per cent in past weeks, and the G20 may hold an emergency meeting on food very soon. We like to think of the Arab Spring as being the pure cry of an oppressed people for lofty ideals such as freedom, equality and democracy. That may be true, but what’s also true is that it’s equally a show of desperation from the starving masses.
Our brilliant cover story this week is by John R. Bradley, who lived in Egypt for the best part of the last decade. Down and out in Cairo himself, he shared in the life of ordinary Egyptians in a way that other expats do not, queuing beside them for the discs of aish baladi, the flatbread sold at subsidised prices of less than 1p apiece. This is what he says:
Even now, the Arab Spring is seen as a popular outcry for political freedom, but those of us who lived in the Arab world in the years leading up to it know better. The first signs of popular agitation begin at the grocery stall, not at a public debate. The preoccupations of the West — democracy and human rights — are as nothing compared to the need to put food on the table…
The main hope of those who poured into Tahrir Square was shared by the revolutionaries in Tunisia: that sudden and radical change would miraculously mean affordable food. Instead, the Arab uprisings have further weakened the economies, not just in Egypt and Tunisia but in Libya, Yemen and Syria. Hamadi Jebali, the new Prime Minister of Tunisia, was elected on a pledge to bring down food prices, by government mandate if necessary. As he is finding out, no government can legislate for cheap food.
So things are getting worse, not better. Due to the turmoil of revolution and short-sighted policies – or the absence of policies altogether – many in the Middle East are hungrier than before. As world food prices leap again, will we see a rush of support for radical Islamist groups as people crave for change, any change?
It’s a recipe for disaster, and you can read John’s piece – and so much more – in the Spectator for as little as £1 a week.Tags: Food prices