22 May, 2019

Bread, Freedom and Migration: the Role of Food in the Arab Awakening

by Alessandro Balduzzi

North Africa’s short-lived Arab Spring of 2010-11 illustrates a disastrous cycle of conflict, food insecurity, and forced migration. Food shortages sparked tension. Migration accelerated. As young people moved away, the farming sector suffered, yields declined, and competition for food increased among those who stay behind. 


North Africa and the Middle East face from failing food systems.

High population growth, poor management of land and water, fast urbanization and dry, hot climates create widespread food insecurity. Although oil-rich Arab Gulf countries buy themselves out of this hunger trap, other Middle Eastern and North African countries, with limited budgets, fail to escape the debilitating squeeze of food imports and subsidies.

The past few decades have proved disastrous. During the 1980s, governments reduced spending on farming. They slashed subsidies on water, seeds, fertilizer, and machinery. Local farmers became less competitive, opening the door to cheap imports. Large segments of the young rural population left for the cities.

Anwar Sadat’s infitah (“open door” policy) is a good example. In spite of increased land under cultivation, Egypt was unable to cope with significant demographic growth. This nourished a dependency on food imports. in 1983, Egypt produced less than 20% of its wheat needs. As world wheat prices skyrocketed from $60 a ton in 1972 to $250 a ton by 1973, wheat imports surged from $147 million to $400 million.

In Egypt and elsewhere in the region, the most common policy response was to subsidize food and hold consumer prices down to guarantee political stability. Subsidies represent one of the pillars of the so-called “democracy of bread [MA1]” according to Larbi Sadiki , nonresident fellow at the Brookings Doha Center and professor of Arab democratization at Qatar University [1]. A subsidy-based social contract guarantees a minimum level of economic sustenance. It's a contemporary version of the Latin phrase panem et circenses (bread and games) under which a government ensures its own survival by satisfying the base needs of the people.

The subsidy model is both expensive and inefficient, nurturing corruption and waste. Nevertheless, it is simple to administer and enjoys a high rate of public approval. In Egypt, the International Monetary Fund demanded subsidy cuts following the negotiations with Sadat’s government in 1976 - which sparked the 1977 bread riots.


In the decade leading up to the Arab Spring, regional trends looked promising. According to the World Bank, the Arab world made important progress to eliminating extreme poverty, boosting shared prosperity, increasing school enrollment, and reducing hunger, child and maternal mortality. What went wrong?

In two words, food prices.

Although figures such as GDP growth or measures of inequality can improve, food prices play an important role played in social unrest and regime survival. The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) argues that “food security, both measured at the macro-level (the ration of food imports to total exports plus remittances) and at the household level (child stunting) emerges as the main driver of conflicts in the region” [2].

During the years leading up to 2011, the world witnessed a sharp rise in agricultural commodity and food prices. Increased demand from emerging economies such as China and India combined with climate-change induced harvest losses. The FAO cereals price index soared to 241 in 2011, up from 119 in 2006 [3].

Most Arab governments responded by reducing import tariffs and increasing subsidies and public sector salaries. These “corrective” actions, far from seeding calm, fed dissatisfaction. The anger came from a surprising place. The Arab poor already spent two thirds or more of their income on food [4] remained sullen. It the urban middle-class responded with fury.


Consider Tunisia. In 2010, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime faced a crisis. Although overall unemployment stood at 13% in May 2010, it reached 26,7% among local youth aged 15 to 29 and more than 50% in some inland areas. Well educated young people found no opportunities.

Free market reforms supported by the International Monetary Fund aggravated the misery. Subsidies to small scale farmers were slashed. The goal was instead to grow manufacturing exports and increase tourism. Rural inland Tunisia suffered, while the productive coast prospered.

On farms, the emphasis became growing vegetables and fruits for export. The country moved away from traditional rain-fed to irrigated agriculture. Given the importance of grain in the local diet (around 50% of food energy comes from cereals in Tunisia [5]), imports soared: they were equal to 64% of consumed cerals between 2006 and 2008 [6]).

According to the Office for North Africa of the Economic Commission for Africa (UN) in 2012 [7] Tunisia’s agriculture trade balance deficit increased from $125.5 million in 2005 to $873.3 million in 2010. Prices of food rose 6.8% in 2010, compared to a mere 0.1% in 2005. The ratio of food subsidies to GDP doubled.


Political protests and migration resulted. Both are “both rooted in deprivation and discontent and in the notion that life could be better, either in another place or at home under another regime” argues Philippe Fargues, part-time professor at the Robert Schuman Centre of the European University Institute and former director of EUI’s Migration Policy Center [7]. The Arab Spring did not create a sudden des to leave the country. In 2005, three-quarters of Tunisians aged 15 to 29 already expressed a wish to emigrate [8].

What the revolt did was create conditions favoring and encouraging migration [9]. Relaxed border controls gave young men a chance to flee. The neighboring Libyan revolution displaced more than 1.1 million people, including 422,000 Libyans seeking temporary refuge abroad and 706,000 migrant workers who left the country; according to IOM [10]. Almost half of them reached Tunisia. Emigration proved a safety valve.

Between January and September 2011, the flow across the Mediterranean turned into a floor. A total of 42,807 persons entered Italy illegally by sea, compared with fewer than 5,000 in 2010. Of these, about 20,000 were Tunisians; the remaining were either Sub-Saharan Africans temporarily in Tunisia on their way to Europe or refugees from Libya [11].

Among those fleeing, the vast majority came from the interior, devastated by declining agricultural self-sufficiency and land fragmentation. According to an FAO report [12], migrants who previously might have left for the Tunisian coast, instead fled for Europe.


In order to shut the valve of migration, conditions must improve in rural Tunisia and the rest of North Africa and the Middle East.

One promising initiative is an FAO project “Youth Mobility, Food Security and Rural Poverty Reduction” [13], implemented between 2015 and 2017. It trained and equipped rural unemployed youth to launch their own small agricultural enterprises.

The FAO initiative formed a team of nine “agricultural coaches” to guide the implementation of selected projects and guarantee their long-term sustainabilty. This enabled the creation of small agricultural businesses in some of the most deprived regions of Tunisia both in the South-East (Médenine, Tataouine and Gabès) and in the North-West (Béja, Jendouba, Le Kef and Siliana). More than 500 individuals benefited from the project through the creation of direct and indirect jobs.

A strong link exists between conflict, migration and food security. Rural areas must not be neglected. They must be integrated into the wider economic fabric, guaranteeing the two basic needs of employment and food. Otherwise, the risk of chaotic migration will loom large, ready to be set off by a spark such as jump of food prices.

[1] L. Sadiki, «Towards Arab Liberal Governance: From the Democracy of Bread to the Democracy of the Vote», Third World Quarterly, 1997, n. 1/1197, pp. 27-48. Cf.:
[2] J.-F. Maystadt, J.-F. Trinh Tan, C. Breisinger, 2012. Does Food Security Matter for Transition in Arab Countries?, IFPRI Discussion Paper 1196, IFPRI, 2012. Cf.: http://ebrary.ifpri.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15738coll2/id/127052;
[3] FAO Food Price Index, cf.: http://www.fao.org/worldfoodsituation/foodpricesindex/en/;
[4] Middle East and North Africa Region – Economic Development and Prospects, World Bank, 2008, p. 21. Cf.: http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTMENA/Resources/2008MENA-EDP-full.pdf;
[5] Profil Nutritionnel de la Tunisie, FAO, 2005. Cf.: http://www.bvsde.ops-oms.org/texcom/nutricion/tun.pdf;
[6] Country and Fact Sheet on Food and Agriculture Policy Trends, FAO, August 2017. Cf.: http://www.fao.org/3/a-i7738e.pdf;
[7] La sécurité alimentaire en Afrique du Nord, UN - Office for North Africa of the Economic Commission for Africa, 2012. Cf.: http://repository.uneca.org/bitstream/handle/10855/22372/b10789674.pdf;
[8] P. Fargues, «Mass Migration and Uprisings in Arab Countries: An Analytical Framework» in G. Luciani (ed.) Combining Economic and Political Development : The Experience of MENA, Graduate Institute Publications, 2017, pp. 170–183. Cf.: https://journals.openedition.org/poldev/2275;
[9] H. Fourati, Consultation de la jeunesse et désir d’émigration chez les jeunes en Tunisie 1996-2005, Carim AS n. 47/2008, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies – European Unviersity Institute. Cf.: http://cadmus.eui.eu/bitstream/handle/1814/10091/CARIM_AS%26N_2008_47.pdf;
[10] Humanitarian Response to the Libyan Crisis, IOM, 2012. Cf.: http://publications.iom.int/bookstore/free/final_mena_10_months_compressed.pdf;
[11] F. De Bel-Air, Migration Profile: Tunisia, Policy Brief 8/2016, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies - European University Institute.
[12] C. V. Zuccotti, A. P. Geddes, A. Bacchi, M. Nori, R. Stojanov, Rural Migration in Tunisia, FAO, 2018.
[13] Promoting alternatives to migration for rural youth in Tunisia and Ethiopia, FAO, 2018. Cf.: http://www.fao.org/3/i8664en/I8664EN.pdf.