Health Impact News Editor Comments: If you read the mainstream media covering events in the Middle East where regimes are quickly being toppled, you come away feeling that the people just all of a sudden developed a taste for democracy and wanted a better government. The real truth, however, is something more basic. Food. Reports say that many now have to spend up to 50% of their income just on basic food commodities, and their government can no longer provide them with cheap food. The heart of the issue in these revolutions is a non-sustainable agricultural system dependent on cheap food and subsidies. Annia Ciezadlo‘s article covers the story quite well.

Let Them Eat Bread: How Food Subsidies Prevent (and Provoke) Revolutions in the Middle East

by Annia Ciezadlo

It was 1977, and revolution was in the air. When an already unpopular government tried to rescind food subsidies — meaning massive price increases for staples like bread, rice, and cooking gas — riots erupted. By the time they were over, hundreds of buildings were burned, 160 people were dead, and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had learned an essential lesson for the modern Arab dictator: let them eat bread. Lots of cheap bread.

Change is sweeping through the Middle East today, but one thing remains the same: the region once known as the Fertile Crescent is now the world’s most dependent on imported grain. Of the top 20 wheat importers for 2010, almost half are Middle Eastern countries. The list reads like a playbook of toppled and teetering regimes: Egypt (1), Algeria (4), Iraq (7), Morocco (8), Yemen (13), Saudi Arabia (15), Libya (16), Tunisia (17).

For decades, many of these regimes relied on food subsidies to ensure stability — a social contract so pervasive that the Tunisian scholar Larbi Sadiki described it as dimuqratiyyat al-khubz, or “democracy of bread.” But over the past several years, grain prices reached record levels, and these appeasement policies lost their luster. In Tunisia, pro-democracy demonstrations began in late December 2010 with protesters brandishing baguettes. In just a few months, a wave of uprisings rippled across the region, toppling Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s longtime ruler, Hosni Mubarak.

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