Sharp spikes in global food prices, which occurred in 2007/08 and 2010/11, preceded the political unrest of the “Arab Spring”.
Whilst it has been reported as a predominantly politically motivated uprising against autocratic incumbent regimes, there were important socio-economic underpinnings to the uprising. One important factor was increasing food prices in the region, which along with other socio-economic factors, such as high levels of unemployment, especially amongst educated youth, was the bomb waiting to explode.
Many regimes had for decades maintained their legitimacy via an implicit social contract, whereby they offered cheap subsidised food, housing, utilities and fuel along with guaranteed employment in a bloated public sector in exchange for political loyalty. Sharp rises in domestic food prices from 2007 onwards contributed to an unravelling of this social contract such that citizens in the region were no longer willing to tolerate repressive and autocratic governments.
That is not to argue that food price increases were the main contributory factor to the Arab Spring, nor to deny the desire for political freedom and human rights amongst citizens in the Arab world. Other factors, such as political repression, the role of social network media, youth unemployment and a domino effect also played important roles in the uprising. However, political repression and social network media have been present in the region for some time without leading to political upheaval.
The Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gadhafi regimes have been tolerated by citizens for decades, so why were they suddenly and violently opposed in 2010/11?
In a way there is a serendipitous parallel with 1788 that saw terrible crops in France and threw starving people on the streets of Paris in 1789, which prompted Marie-Antoinette’s infamous line: “They don’t have bread? Let them eat cake”. The timing of the Arab Spring was rising food prices, which both sowed some of the seeds and acted as an important trigger for the uprising.
Source of the chart and further read: