The Arab Spring was a revolution of the hungry – Thanassis Cambanis
Thanassis Cambanis Θανάσης Καμπάνης
Tahrir Square revolution, a group of retired Egyptian generals sat
poolside at Cairo’s Gezira Club and worried about whether the country’s
ruling elite could survive a popular uprising. It was February 2011, a
week before President Hosni Mubarak was toppled. Millions of freshly
politicized Egyptians had already taken to the streets. And yet, some of
these career security men were unfazed.
“The only thing we really need to worry about is a revolution of the
hungry,” said one, a retired Air Force general. “That would be the end
As it turned out, it took less than four years for Egypt’s
dictatorship to reconstitute itself, crushing the hope for real change
among the people. In no small part, the regime’s resilience was due to
its firm grasp of bread politics. The ruler who controls the main
staples of life — bread and fuel — often controls everything else, too.
Nonetheless, the specter of a “revolution of the hungry” still
worries authoritarian rulers today, in Egypt and throughout the Arab
world. Roughly put, the idea is shorthand for an uprising that brings
together not only the traditional cast of political and religious
dissidents but also pits a far greater number of poor, uneducated, and
apolitical citizens against the state.
Look across the region, and regimes have good reason to be afraid.
Even in countries where obesity is widespread, people suffer from
low-quality medical care and malnutrition due to a lack of healthy
The basic equation is stark: The Arab world cannot feed itself.
Rulers obsessed with security have created a twisted web of importers
and bakeries whose aim is not to feed the population efficiently or
nutritiously but simply to maintain the regime and stave off that much
feared revolution of the hungry. Vast subsidies eat up the lion’s share
of national budgets.
So far, the bakeries haven’t run out of loaves in two of the
region’s biggest bread battlegrounds, Egypt and Syria. But the sense of
plenty is only an illusion. Food is expensive, people are poor, and
repressive regimes rely on imported wheat financed through foreign aid.
It’s an unsustainable and volatile cocktail.
“You have a system where access to food is a primary mechanism of
social control,” said journalist Annia Ciezadlo, author of the book
“Day of Honey,” who has written extensively about food subsidies,
unrest, and the use of food as a weapon in the Middle East. “The moment
something happens to that supply of subsidized food, everything can go
out of control.”
of 2010 and 2011 offered only the most recent glimpse of what it would
look like if people got hit where it hurts the most: at the dinner
In 1977, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt managed a feat that had been
considered impossible when he broke with the entire Arab world and
initiated a peace process with Israel, even traveling to Jerusalem to
address the Knesset. The bread conundrum, on the other hand, proved
much more intractable.
Sadat tried in January 1977 to cancel Egypt’s expensive wheat
subsidy at the urging of the World Bank and International Monetary
Fund. Riots swept nearly every major city, and in two days Sadat caved.
He restored the bread subsidy that has remained in place ever since,
and the Egyptian military took control of many crucial bakeries to
ensure that the government could control the bread supply in a crisis.
That awkward status quo prevails to this day. The government’s bread
economy is inefficient, unstable, and nearly entirely dependent on
foreign imports. But any attempt to tinker with bread prices or
subsidies still terrifies the country’s rulers and enrages its
Regimes took heed. Hafez al-Assad, the dictator of Syria, extolled
peasants in his rhetoric and made food independence a central pillar of
his regime. For decades, Syrian officials constantly bragged they
didn’t need to import wheat.
Dictators in the Arab world learned that one of the best routes to
dominance runs through the bakery. Rulers the world round usually
deploy some variant of pocketbook politics, rewarding their loyalists
with perks like community centers, jobs, and payola — and punishing
opposition areas by scrimping on their basic services like roads and
schools. In many Middle Eastern countries, the level of control was
more basic: Without the government, citizens would starve.
The brittle, undemocratic regimes had, however, no mechanism of
oversight and little resilience to withstand outside shocks. So distant
events like a bad crop on the Black Sea or low rainfall in Canada
could quickly translate into a political crisis in the Levant or North
Africa. In 2008, world food prices spiked, and, once again, bread riots
broke out across the Middle East. Regimes scrambled to cover the
shortfall with handouts and subsidies, on the assumption that their
populations might tolerate repression but not hunger.
Indeed, rising commodity prices were one of the triggers in the 2010
to 2011 uprisings. Protesters in Tunisia brandished baguettes. In
Egypt, many of the revolutionary chants talked about food, and a
central demand was for “bread, freedom, social justice” (it rhymes in
Sefrou, Morrocco, 2007
The first Syrians to rise up against Bashar Assad included many poor
farmers who had been displaced by drought and the government’s
neoliberal disinvestment from agriculture. Caitlin Werrell and
Francesco Femia at the Center for Climate and Security in Washington,
D.C., argue that a series of droughts in Syria from 2006 to 2010
created the preconditions for the uprisings — crop failures drove
farmers off their land and raised the level of desperation until
Syrians directly challenged their ruler.
Saudi Arabia’s ultrarich monarchy calculated that it could survive
any challenge from political dissidents critical of the country’s lack
of rights and freedoms — as long as it could keep its citizens in
material comfort. The king quickly increased handouts to citizens, and
after a brief rumble, Saudi Arabians sat out the regional wave of
protests that swept through nearly every other Arab state.
Yet the obsession with food sovereignty and security remains close
to the region’s despots. Saudi Arabia has purchased land in fertile
water-rich countries like Ethiopia in order to secure its food supply.
In Syria, unscrupulous combatants on all sides have made food one of
the war’s central battlegrounds. The regime blocks delivery of food
aid to rebellious regions; its blockade of the Yarmouk refugee camp in
Damascus has also kept out truckloads of UN food aid, causing years of
famine in the camp. Further afield, the regime routinely bombs bakeries
in areas that fall under rebel control, in a method colloquially
referred to as “starve-or-surrender.”
The Islamic State, for its part, has made control of the food supply
a basic part of its blueprint for power, starting with the bakeries
and wheat warehouses, and even facilitating the international aid
deliveries that have kept some parts of northern Syria from suffering
the same fate as Yarmouk.
The Arab states are the world’s largest net importers of grains, depending on exports from water-rich North America, Europe, and Central Asia.
So it follows that bread riots will break out every time there’s a
disruption in the global food supply. Anger will bubble up every time
there’s a drought. Or when oil profits fall and it becomes harder to pay
for grain imports. The Middle East North Africa region consumes about
44 percent of global net grain imports, according to Eckart Woertz,
author of “Oil for Food: The Global Food Crisis and the Middle East”:
“Self sufficiency is not an option in the region,” he said in an
Still, most scholars now accept the idea first proposed by the
economist Amartya Sen, that food shortages and famines are usually
caused by political mismanagement, not by an actual lack of food.
Malcolm McLaren, Bread Gun. Photo: Peter Haley
In the Middle East, that means conditions are still ripe for a
tempest. “At the end of the day, we can explain the crisis in terms of
political economy: corruption, crony networks favored over rural
populations. Droughts don’t cause civil war in Los Angeles,” said
Woertz, who studies food and security at the Barcelona Centre for
International Affairs, a think tank.
And it can’t be ignored that droughts have been a fact of life in
the arid Arab world as long as there has been agriculture, and bread
riots on their own have yet to transform a dictatorship into a
democracy. That’s because the problem is much larger: People in the
Arab world have been kept poorer than they should be by corrupt
repressive governments that hog national wealth for a tiny elite. Until
that changes, hunger and food insecurity will remain yet another
symptom of the region’s terrible governance.