Rising food prices contribute to unrest in the Middle East

A Warning from the United Nations WFP: “The margins between stability and chaos are perilously thin”

A statement released Friday by the United Nation’s World Food Programme (WFP) claims that the rising cost of food is a key factor in the current protests and uprisings across the Middle East.

“In many of the protests, demonstrators have brandished loaves of bread or displayed banners expressing anger about the rising cost of food staples such as lentils,” said the statement written by Josette Sheeran, the WFP’s executive director.

“These are the nutritional building blocks of life, and if people feel that rising prices are pushing these food items out of reach, growing anxiety adds to the general feeling of exclusion, resentment and despair,” the statement continued.

Shokry Gohar, a professor in the Islamic Studies department at McGill and originally from Egypt, agreed that rising food prices played a large role in public discontent, especially in his native country.

“The rise in food prices have had a very negative impact on the Egyptian people because annual income is very, very low. I don’t think the average Egyptian makes more than $2 a day,” he said.

“This makes it difficult for him to be able to buy supplies and all those sort of things for his family, so it has a very strong impact, and I think it is one of the reasons that has pushed the Egyptian people to take to the street,” Gohar added.

According to the WFP’s statement, “The UN Food and Agriculture Organization Food Price Index in January reached a new historic peak, rising for the seventh consecutive month and surpassing the peak of the 2007-2008 food price crisis.”

Gohar pointed out that rising food prices are not specific to North Africa and the Middle East. He noted that there have been significant hikes in global food prices over the past year.

“It’s not restricted to Egypt. It is a worldwide issue, but the Egyptian government did not respond to what is going on around the world,” he said. “In Egypt, the government did not react at all to this issue. It therefore became very difficult for the Egyptians to cope with the change.”

When asked if the Egyptian government could have done anything to remedy the situation, Gohar replied, “I think the government could have done a lot to cope with this problem.”

Jane Howard, the WFP’s public information officer, agreed that rising food prices are a global phenomenon, however, she also noted that it is an issue with varying degrees. “There is no suggestion that countries in North Africa and the Middle East are running out of food. Media reports say that in Egypt, for example, the government has sufficient wheat supplies to last until June this year,” she said, indicating that populations do not necessarily need to be starving for food prices to become an issue.

“Even in times of stability, many people throughout North Africa and the Middle East struggle to access the nutritious food they require for a balanced diet,” Howard said. “All governments are struggling with the rising cost of food globally…higher prices globally will mean less food for the hungry.”

“[Egypt’s] like everywhere else in the world but the governments of the world are trying to compensate [for the rise in food prices] through giving people a sufficient income so that they can deal with the increasing food prices,” Gohar said.

Haroun Bouazzi, a Tunisian Montrealer who helped organize the recent Tunisia rally in Montreal and is involved with Collectif de solidarité au Canada avec les luttes sociales en Tunisie, echoed Howard’s view that food is not the main problem in Tunisia.

While “food prices did play a role in the discontent in Tunisia,” Bouazzi said, “it was not the main reason people went to the streets. It was the lack of hope. It was more political than anything else. It’s not because it’s expensive, it’s because they don’t have a job.”

Though food prices in 2008 did cause some protests in Tunisia, they are not an immediate concern in Tunisia at the moment, according to Bouazzi.

“Nobody is dying from hunger right now in Tunisia. The bread and other foods are subsidized. For sure, some people cannot buy meat and stuff like that, but it is not a major social problem, for example, to buy bread,” he said.

Howard further emphasized the fact that food is just one part of the greater picture.

“Rising food prices have undoubtedly been a contributing factor in the political turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, but they have not been the central issue,” she said. “They are only part of a complex array of different issues driving the protests, such as unemployment, political reform and freedom of speech.”

However, the WFP statement warned that the rising cost of food should not be taken lightly as food and market volatility can quickly translate into unrest.

“When it comes to food, the margins between stability and chaos are perilously thin,” the WFP concluded. “It is still too early to quantify the role that rising food prices are playing in the current wave of discontent.”