Cereal price rises threaten civil unrest

The Middle East must ensure food supply amid spiking global prices or risk potential civil unrest

The current drought-induced surge in global food prices is causing disquiet in the Middle East and North Africa. Memories do not need to be very long to recall that when protesters took to the streets of cities across the region in 2011, food prices were high and inflation was rampant.

Their economic plight was one of the main factors that brought demonstrators to the streets in late 2010 and 2011. The failure of several regional governments to provide jobs and a basic standard of living for so many of their citizens supplied a ready means by which a political protest movement could be mobilised.

Organisers of the first major demonstration in Cairo in January 2011 said the protests would focus on poverty, unemployment, torture and corruption.

In Tunisia, the catalyst for the protests was the self-immolation of unemployed graduate Mohamed Bouazizi, who, after authorities prevented him from selling vegetables without a licence, could no longer see a way to support himself and his family.

By the middle of February, the governments in both countries had been toppled.

Street demonstrations

Food prices were not the only problem in 2011. There was double-digit unemployment in Egypt and Tunisia, rising to more than 25 per cent among the under-thirties.

But the pain of poverty and joblessness is all the greater when basic necessities are no longer affordable. Corruption and nepotism become all the more unpalatable when so many cannot afford to adequately feed themselves.

It was not the only time in recent memory when rising food prices and street demonstrations coincided. In the spring of 2008, soaring wheat prices, exacerbated by inefficient food distribution and stockpiling, left Cairo residents queuing for many hours to buy bread. More than 15 people died in the queues.

There was no revolution that year, but the government – which had just slashed wheat subsidies – came under considerable pressure. Strikes were held across a broad swathe of sectors in a campaign for higher wages.

Political groups saw their opportunity to capitalise on the discontent, organising an unprecedented national ‘day of anger’ on 6 April. Analysts at the time talked of how the seeds of revolution had already been sowed and indeed it was only a matter of time before they bore fruit.

What is causing concern today is the possibility of another global food spike prompting further political unrest in a region where new regimes are still trying to find their footing and old ones are desperately trying to cling to power.

To view the rest of this article, visit MEED.com.

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Richard Nield is a freelance journalist, photographer and filmmaker covering the Middle East and Africa. In 10 years covering the region, he has been published and broadcast by clients including the BBC, Reuters, Al Jazeera, The Economist, The Financial Times, The Independent and Foreign Policy magazine. He has reported from throughout the region, including Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, South Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.