“Break my heart but don’t come near my bread,” goes an old Arabic proverb. Failure to observe it has often come at a high political price.
Just ask Tunisian president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, who has now fled.
For weeks his countrymen had protested against high unemployment, endemic corruption and political repression. They also decried the high cost of staple food items such as wheat, sugar and milk, whose prices rose about 25 percent in the first week of January.
“We want bread, water, and Ben Ali out,” one group of protestors chanted.
On Friday, after a brutal crackdown and last-minute concessions failed to contain the rising tide, the embattled Tunisian president fled to Saudi Arabia with his family.
Commentators said Ben Ali, who ruled the North African country with an iron fist for 23 years, grossly underestimated the public’s anger over being unable to put food on the table. It was a cardinal error by an aging dictator who a U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks described as being out of touch with his people.
The disgraced despot would have done well to recall the bread riots in 1984 that left some 80 Tunisians dead and almost unhinged the government of his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba. Similar protests erupted in Egypt in 1977, Morocco in 1981 and Jordan in 1989. And it was bread riots in 1988 that eventually brought Islamists to the verge of parliamentary control in Algeria – a situation that led to a decade-long civil war.
Providing cheap food to the masses is part of an unwritten pact between Arab dictators and their people. Since the 1950s, authoritarian Arab regimes have committed to distributing subsidised food staples such as bread, milk and eggs to their populations in exchange for political quiescence.
“While officials acknowledge the burden that subsidies put on national budgets, they have been hesitant to reduce or remove them,” says economist Abdel Fatah El-Gebali of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “They worry it could cause inflation and lead to social upheaval.”
In Egypt, which allocates about 7 percent of GDP to fuel and food subsidies, plans to restructure the food subsidy programme are whispered in the halls of parliament. The government wants to replace the current “in-kind” system with a cash payment system that it says would directly target those who need it most. Yet the controversial plan is repeatedly delayed by nervous officials.
Antiquated and inefficient subsidy systems from Rabat to Riyadh are now buckling under the pressure of record-high global food (and fuel) prices. Arab governments face the dilemma: absorb the extra costs of food inflation into national subsidy programmes at the risk of deepening budget deficits, or permit domestic food prices to rise at the risk of social unrest.
Tunisia appears to have chosen unwisely.
Of course, food inflation is not a problem on its own. It is the combustible mixture of poverty, high unemployment, economic disparity, and rising living costs that has turned the region into a powder keg.
Arab Labour Organisation (ALO) figures show that Arab countries have among the highest unemployment rates in the world – an average of 14.5 percent in fiscal year 2007/08 compared with the international average of 5.7 percent. The rates may even be higher if one accepts unofficial estimates.
According to national figures, more than 20 percent of Egyptians live on less than two dollars per day, the UN-recognised poverty threshold. In Algeria, about 23 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, while in Morocco it is 14.3 percent, in Tunisia it is 12.8 percent, and in Yemen the rate exceeds 45 percent.
The popular uprising that sent Tunisia’s president packing was not a political movement, but a spontaneous economic revolt by citizens unable to make ends meet. It began when Mohammad Bouazizi, a 26-year-old university graduate, doused himself with kerosene and set himself alight after Tunisian police confiscated the unlicensed produce cart he was using to make a living.
“Tunisians and Algerians are hungry. The Egyptians and Yemenis are right behind them,” Emirati commentator Mishaal Al Gergawi wrote in the Dubai- based newspaper Gulf News. “Mohammad Bouazizi didn’t set himself on fire because he couldn’t blog or vote. People set themselves on fire because they can’t stand seeing their family wither away slowly, not of sorrow, but of cold stark hunger.”
Bouazizi’s self-immolation on Dec. 17 sparked a conflagration that toppled the Tunisian government and now threatens to engulf much of the Arab world.
Should the region’s autocratic rulers be worried? To date, they have managed to retain power through sham elections and by neutralising and demoralising political opposition. But a bread intifadah – in which the disenfranchised masses are ready to face down bullets to secure food for their families – can be a very formidable force.
Cam McGrath (Cairo, IPS)
18 January 2011