Recipe for revolution

Hunger prompts insurrection, and this year’s crop price spikes will hit the world’s streets next spring

18 August 2012

It started in America. The Midwest has for weeks been suffering what is now the worst drought in living memory. Prices for maize and wheat have soared by 50 per cent and the G20 will next week decide whether to call an emergency meeting to discuss what the United Nations believes could be a repeat of the 2008 food price crisis. It is being spoken of as a humanitarian disaster, and rightly. But the last few years have taught us that, when hunger strikes, political upheaval will not be far behind.

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. Governments can lock up and even torture their political enemies, and face little protest. But when the price of lemons goes up eightfold, as it just has in Tunis, it is time for governments to be afraid. The link between hunger and revolution is far stronger than the political analysts will concede.

I would not have believed that food prices were so powerful in shaping world politics had I not lived in Egypt for the best part of the last decade. Staying in impoverished neighbourhoods and short of money myself, I shared the daily routines and life stories of ordinary Egyptians and queued beside them for the discs of aish baladi, the flatbread sold at subsidised prices of less than 1p apiece. Not once during those years did I meet another Middle East correspondent. The conversations of tiny groups of Cairo’s English-speaking elites, and their western drinking companions, were a world apart from talk among the Egyptian masses. It is easy to see how someone flying in to Cairo to assess the local situation could have left without any sense of a gathering storm.

My book, Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharaohs on the Brink of a Revolution, predicted that Hosni Mubarak’s regime was doomed. It ran against all prevailing wisdom, but the revolution duly came 18 months later. 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.

It is worth remembering that the great hero of ordinary Egyptian people is Gamal Abdel Nasser, a dictator credited with allowing them to afford a decent meal a day and respecting their dignity. Mubarak went because he failed in both respects. The blatant, wholesale theft of Egypt’s resources under his regime (in the name of neoliberal economics) was resented. But when the 2008 food crisis struck, it became intolerable. As the saying goes, when the masses have nothing to lose, they lose it.

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Proof of the link between food prices and revolution is written in history, for those with an eye to see it. Take the 1848 European revolutions, long regarded as the result of brave new political ideas about freedom. But two academics, Helge Berger and Mark Spoerer, recently found a more mundane explanation. A bad harvest in 1847 saw a massive food price shock in Austria, France, Hungary, Prussia and Switzerland the next year. Revolutions followed. There was no such price shock in Scandinavia, England, Russia or Spain — and no revolutions. While food inflation may not provide the brains for an insurrection, it does supply the brawn.

The same principle holds true today. A graph of the world food price index over the last seven years shows two massive spikes, in 2008 and 2011. They match almost exactly with the worst global riots. The New England Complex Systems Institute, which conducted the study, believes that the food price surge means more global political violence is all but inevitable. ‘These are new tools for understanding social change,’ says the Institute’s president, Yaneer Bar-Yam. ‘The thing we’re worried about is that they’re pointing to global catastrophe, in a short period of time.’ The UN is beginning to have the same fear.

Arab despots have long understood, albeit in different ways, the relationship between power and hunger. Habib Bourguiba, the first post-independence leader of Tunisia, essentially adopted the Singaporean model of governance: restricted political freedom in return for economic growth, affordable housing and government-controlled low prices of basic food staples. His successor, Ben Ali, neglected his part of the deal, and paid the price. The most serious Egyptian riots before the Tahrir uprising had occurred in 1977 when President Anwar Sadat tried to cut food subsidies (hundreds were killed and he was forced to back down). In the wake of the Arab Spring, the House of Saud promised its miserably oppressed masses $37 billion in handouts. While it may be loathed by large sections of the Saudi population, as long as its coffers remain overflowing with oil revenues, its security is basically assured.

If the 2008 crisis was anything to go by, the crop price spikes of 2012 should be hitting the streets in spring of next year. Crop prices will directly affect livestock prices (each pound of pork requires ten pounds of soya). Even if Asian food supplies hold up, the global market means hardly a country in the world that will be unaffected. This includes Britain, where food prices have risen by 30 per cent over the last five years. Already, we see the relatively new phenomenon of food banks in deprived parts of England. There are already 200 of them now, and three more opening every week.

In Britain, food takes up about 10 per cent of average wages. In Egypt, it is 40 per cent. Moreover, in the Arab world there are the organised, politically connected jihadi groups, rather than small groups of hooligans, waiting in the wings. They consider the mainstream Islamist groups traitors, and are determined to impose strict sharia law. Abdelfattah Mourou, a veteran of Tunisia’s ruling Islamist Ennahda party, was attacked and injured by a radical Islamist last weekend — at a conference on religious tolerance. Secular Tunisians are reportedly arming themselves to the teeth in fear of an imminent uprising by Salafis, intent on creating a Saudi-style Islamic theocracy. All the Salafis are waiting for is another crisis.

The Arab Spring has hardly brought a new era of stability. In Egypt, last week’s attack on an Israeli border post in impoverished Sinai, the most daring in decades, is further proof that jihadists cannot be controlled by a Muslim Brotherhood-led government. In Yemen, the poorest Arab country where international aid agencies fear that five million may be facing starvation, al-Qa’eda has taken over large swaths of the country. Hunger clears the way for jihadis. An emboldened al-Qa’eda is now launching repeated attacks on the Yemeni regime.

Given the terrifying political and humanitarian problems caused by food shortages, it is amazing how little has been done to secure the global supply of crops. The American drought is bad enough in itself, but its effects are being magnified by a congressional mandate requiring 40 per cent of surviving maize crops to be used to make ethanol, which in turn is used to make environmentally friendly biofuel. The massive subsidies are popular with farmers (Barack Obama met some in Iowa this week) but play havoc with fuel prices. The International Monetary Fund estimated that biofuel farming accounted for two thirds of the increase in maize prices and two fifths of the soya bean hike in the 2008 food crisis.

It is a curious paradox. When starvation strikes, appeals
are made by western governments for charitable donations to put food in the bellies of the starving — and even say that such aid makes them less likely to turn to extremism. But the same policy-makers, in Europe and America, think it morally acceptable for crops to be grown for the purpose of pouring into the fuel tanks of cars. The United Nations is now urging the United States to suspend ethanol production, and release the maize into the global food market instead, but it’s unlikely to happen in an election year. It will take some time before the effects of the latest biofuel craze on hunger are fully calculated, but it is a safe bet that its unintended consequences will reverberate around the globe for years.

At the end of the month, Barack Obama will decide whether to call an emergency G20 summit to discuss the impending food price crisis and whether to activate its ‘Rapid Response Forum’ — a committee for food price disasters which was established after the last crisis. But it doesn’t matter how rapidly you close the stable door once the horse has bolted. Crop prices have spiked and an all-too-predictable chain reaction is already underway. The purpose of a G20 meeting would be to agree that no one should hoard crops that would otherwise be exported. It is too late. India has given such orders already, and Russia (which has also suffered drought) is mulling restrictions on its grain exports.

Another round of political violence is not inevitable. As Karl Popper observed, mankind is clever enough to predict solar eclipses but never revolutions: food prices do not, in themselves, topple governments. But the power of hunger is far greater than is popularly believed. The slogan chanted in Tahrir Square was ‘bread, dignity, and social justice’ — and the greatest of these demands was bread. If the new government fails to secure it, then the radical Islamists will be ready. They feed on despair and it seems there will be a surplus of that, if little else.

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