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Underneath The Egyptian Revolution: The Politics Of Food

By Billy Wharton

01 February, 2011

So long as you have food in your mouth, you have solved all questions for the time being. - Franz Kafka

Hidden beneath the spectacular street battles that aim to force Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak out of office is a trigger that exists in dozens of countries throughout the world – food. Or, more specifically, the lack of it. While commentators focus on the corruption of the dictatorship, or the viral effects of the Tunisian moment or the something akin to an Arab political awakening, the inability of the Egyptian regime to insure a steady flow of food staples should be viewed as a critical factor driving this seemingly spontaneous movement for freedom.

Egypt is far from an isolated case when it comes to food shortages. Since 2008, rising food prices have resulted in 40 mass riots throughout the globe and the United Nations reports that 37 countries currently face a food crisis. World prices for basic food commodities such as corn, sugar and beef have all spiked in the last year resulting, in many regions, in sharp reductions in food intake. The governments of Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Indonesia, Brazil and the Philippines all issued warnings in 2010 about impending food shortages.(The Guardian, October 26, 2010)

What makes Egypt special in regards to food shortages is the triple convergence of ecological devastation induced harvest reductions, government corruption and ineptitude and a resulting reliance on a global food market that is being inflated by global environmental degradation and capitalist speculation.

The Nile River, the great provider of civilization, sits at the core of the severe environmental decline in the region. An over reliance on its resources combined with long-term negative effects from damming projects have resulted in water scarcities and yield declines in arable land. The resulting crisis has produced skyrocketing prices for potable water – soda is now cheaper than water in many parts of Egypt – and reductions in the planting of necessary crops. (BBC Worldwide Monitoring, May 30, 2010)

In November 2010, just a few months before the revolt, the Mubarak government announced severe restrictions in the production of staple crops such as rice. The reduced rice production had spiraling effects. Prices rose sharply, a key nutritional staple was removed from the poor and, because rice is also a key export crop, agricultural laborers were left jobless. All this was done via the usual autocratic decree from Cairo. (The Citizen (Dar es Salaam) November 24, 2010)

The Mubarak government has, for many years, chosen to manage the food crisis with an old combination succinctly summarized by turn of the 20th century Mexican Dictator Porfirio Diaz’ slogan “pan o palo” (bread or the stick). Instead of allowing workers to bargain for wages that might meet the increased food costs, he repressed the labor movement through a reliance on a police apparatus that had swelled to an estimated one police operative for every 37 citizens. This, while refusing for the last 26 years to raise the minimum wage. (AfricaNews, June 23, 2010) Simultaneously, he attempted to create a state monopoly on the production and distribution of low cost bread. When black market activity threatened this monopoly, he had the military take over the enterprise. (USAToday, April 30, 2008)

All of this created a dual food dependency for the country. Egypt remained a main recipient of US aid, about $1.8 billion annually, and developed a dangerous linkage to global food markets. This link can be seen most clearly in the wheat market, where the Egyptian state was forced to make mass purchases of wheat in order to satisfy rising food demands and maintain social order.

This system seemed to work until Russia, the third largest exporter of wheat, experienced its worst drought in 50 years in 2010. Prices skyrocketed on the global market and the Egyptian government, the largest importer of Russian wheat, was forced, in August 2010, to pay $270 a ton for wheat that had cost $238 in July. (National Post's Financial Post & FP Investing (Canada), August 5, 2010)

Although the government claimed, as late as the middle of last year, that wheat self-sufficiency was its goal, the country now relies on foreign markets for 40% of its consumption. And the environmental limits imposed by the above mentioned water scarcity on the Nile ensure that the lack of food self-sufficiency will rise in the future. (UN Integrated Regional Information Networks (Nairobi), October 11, 2010)

Though it was a critical strategy to maintain political order, Egyptians do not live on wheat alone. Soaring bread prices, lack of rice and water scarcity intersected with sharp increases in the costs of other basic foodstuffs. This year, vegetable prices soared 50% and meat and poultry increased by 28.6%. The tomato crop was particularly poor this season with harvests declining as much as 75% in some areas. (Reuters, October 19, 2010)

Consider then that the revolt in Egypt is more than just a movement for political freedom. It may be one of the first instances of a political movement that exposes the sharp limitations of current global system of food production. The lack of food was the trigger for this uprising, the severing of a final link with a deeply authoritarian regime operating within limits imposed by its own corruption and repression, the natural world and an exceedingly unnatural global market for food.

One lesson that can be drawn from this moment is that it is vitally necessary to create another kind of global system for the production and distribution of food. No amount of democracy in Egypt will solve their food crisis since, for the foreseeable future, the country will be dependent on the global marketplace for critical food supplies. Capitalist values built into these markets ensure that they serve the profit interests of the big food conglomerates. Ecological damage pushes further reliance on these same markets. A new system anchored around socialist notions of global equity and ecological sustainability would serve as a better companion to the demands for political freedom being presented in Egypt and held by people living in many other places in the world.

Billy Wharton is a writer, activist and the editor of the Socialist WebZine. His articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the NYC Indypendent, Spectrezine and the Monthly Review Zine. He can be reached at whartonbilly@gmail.com



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