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.
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.
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.
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 spiralling effects. Prices rose sharply, a key nutritional staple was removed from the poor and, because rice is also a key export crop, agricultural labourers were left jobless. All this was done via the usual autocratic decree from Cairo.
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 labour 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.
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.
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.
January 31, 2011