‘Revolutions of the Hungry’: The Arab World’s Bogeyman

Friday 20 January 201709:18 am
When Tunisia’s Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated in protest of the authorities’ confiscation of his food cart--his only resource to scrape together a living--he was not simply marking the first spark of the Arab Spring. Rather, his act marked the indelible omen of a nightmare scenario; at any moment, the mobilization of people by the thousands, out to demand their God-given right to eat. As Arab governments grapple with the threat of terrorism and insurgency, both internally and on their borders, and as they attempt to subdue the remaining traces of the mass mobilization that erupted six years ago, another specter rears its head. It is the specter of the so-called “Revolution of the Hungry”; a specter feared across all political persuasions, from the far left to the far right.


On November 11, 2016, the Egyptian government was due for an imaginary rendez-vous with one of these so-called “Revolutions of the Hungry,” in the form of a mass call-for-action, from an all-but-anonymous agitator. Despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s endorsement of the calls for protest, suspicion was rife among members of the opposition that the whole thing had in fact been cooked up by the country’s security apparatus to gauge public sentiment in light of the recent unpopular economic decisions. That same month, citizens has been subjected to the flotation of the Egyptian pound against the US dollar, and the second in a wave of price increases that is set to see the gradual but full lifting of energy subsidies. The “vortex of chaos” that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi warned against in his comments on the calls for protest is no longer such a distant reality, though the cause of that is nothing less than the country’s dire economic indicators. Yet, everything remains contingent on the people themselves; the latest numbers from the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS) indicate that 27.8% are living under the line of poverty, while 5.3% are incapable of securing food. Statistics betray a quickly-disappearing middle class, along with a rapidly ballooning inflation rate, which recently recorded 20%, and is not expected to slow down anytime soon. However, Salma Hussein, a researcher in socio-economic justice at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), does not correlate rates of hunger with likelihood of social unrest. Rather, she believes that these rates affect, in one way or another, the prevalent values and behaviors of the people, whether in their attitude towards the government, or in their dealings among themselves. She explains to Raseef22 that hunger or poverty are not necessarily the preconditions for the eruption of a “Revolution of the Hungry.” However, she believes there is a direct correlation between mass hunger and social instability, due to the vast inequality between different segments. “Inequality incites social unrest, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to a revolution of the hungry,” she notes. Yet, even with the abundance of social and economic incentives for unrest, the regime nonetheless plays a decisive role. The extent of the power exercised in response to public anger plays a major role in determining the direction of events, according to Mohamed Gad, a researcher at the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR). Gad moreover points out that public-sector employees play a determining role in whether or not any mass mobilization succeeds, providing the demographic weight that would ensure the success of any mobilization. Conversely, a movement that is not lent their support is likely to meet failure. This was evidenced by the former strongman Hosni Mubarak’s treatment of this sector, whereby their compliance was regularly ensured with an annual raise.

Egypt Hunger Revolution Infographic

Why Did the ‘Uprising of the Poor’ Fail on November 11?

“The political climate in Egypt is influenced by the ongoing security battle against the insurgency that has been ongoing since the ouster of the Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in June 2013--and the attendant restriction of freedoms for the opposition,” says Gad. He further points out that the state’s public spending policies on subsidized goods have a crucial role in assuaging public anger. In its annual report for 2016, the ECESR observed a decline in protests related to economic, labor, or social issues compared to 2015, whereby 1,736 protests were recorded in 2016, compared to 1,955 in the previous year. Moreover, 2016 was also marked by a series of economic decisions aiming to address a mounting economic crisis. Among these decisions were the imposition of the value-added tax (VAT), two major devaluations of the local currency in March and November, the latter of which saw the first full flotation of the Egyptian pound against the US dollar, and the lifting of energy subsidies. All of these decisions had an inflationary effect, thereby creating additional pressures on the public. Yet, along with these economic challenges faced by the people came additional laws restricting their right to protest, which may have affected the number of protests during 2016, according to the ECESR report. Social researcher Ali Al-Rigaal says, “The evidence does not negate the possibility of a social uprising--and consequently violence and chaos--erupting soon due to the rising costs of living. However, it will not be a ‘revolution of the hungry,’ as this is contingent upon a sense of class injustice among the poor towards the more affluent classes.” He further noted that there is no clear evidence indicating the eruption of such “Revolutions of the Hungry” during modern times, and in particular the dystopian visions of the hungry erupting by the thousands and looting the possessions of the rich.


No more than a few months had passed since the “prophecy” put forth by Sadiq Al-Mahdi--Omar Al-Bashir’s most notorious opposer and head of the National Umma Party in Sudan--in which he called on his supporters to prepare for the upcoming revolution of the hungry that would grip Sudan. Before the end of the year, calls for civil disobedience had spread like wildfire in the capital Khartoum. Protests erupted against the austerity policies and the rise in prices of medicines by 300%. Sudan has trodden a similar path to Egypt in enforcing the conditions stipulated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which include the gradual privatization of public services, such as schools, petroleum products, transportation, and hospitals. However, the Sudanese government went well beyond the call of duty, completely lifting subsidies by 100% on all fuels, with projections that basic goods, such as wheat, will also be de-subsidized during the year. Such steps have in turn fuelled the calls for civil disobedience. According to official figures, over 45% of the Sudanese population lives under the line of poverty, while the rate of inflation recorded 20% in 2016. Sudan has been in an economic deadlock since the secession of the south in 2011, and the deduction of revenues from petroleum, which comprised 74% of the state budget. This led to the double of foreign exchange rates, and the tripling of the prices of consumer goods.


A look at the International Food Policy Research Institute’s (IFPRI) world poverty indicators suffices to indicate the direness of the situation in Yemen, whereby it has been ranked as the poorest Arab country, and the sixth poorest in the world. About 22 million Yemenis are currently experiencing lack of food security. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization defines “food deprivation, or undernourishment, as the consumption of fewer than about 1,800 kilocalories a day—the minimum that most people require to live a healthy and productive life,” as cited in the IFPRI’s Global Hunger Index. Further, the World Bank’s report, from its office in Sana’a, reports that unemployment among youth has doubled to register 60%, amid the violence that has taken over the country since its division in 2011. Unlike other more stable countries in the region, the warning calls from experts and analysts of the likelihood of Yemen’s hungry erupting in anger cannot go unheeded. The situation is particularly volatile, as public officials’ salaries are dispensed irregularly in light of the government’s decision to move the central bank headquarters from Sana’a to Aden, out of fear that it will fall under the control of Abdel Malik Al-Houthi and his supporters. Similar to the case in Egypt and Sudan, Yemeni activists often trigger hashtags, such as #therevolutionofthehungry, warning of this ominous fate.


While the spark of the Arab Spring leapt from Tunisia to Egypt, analysts were brought to a standstill over the possibility of it catching on in Libya. Subsequently, the once-economically secure Libyan population would be caught in the crossfire of potential revolutions of the hungry. The World Bank’s report on Libya’s Economic Outlook, issued in October, paints an extremely bleak picture for the once relatively prosperous country, indicating that the nation could be on the verge of economic collapse. The report cited the decline in oil prices and the suspension of its production, as well as the political crisis and deadlock, as the causes for this. In what appeared to be a rehearsal for the real thing, crowds erupted in anger in response to the shutting down of bakeries amid unending bread lines in March 2016, due to the shortage of flour in Tripoli. However, the Libya Dawn forces and militias were quick to confront the strife, fearing the start of another wave of protracted conflict. Moreover, the state of war throughout the country led to over 200 robberies and murders in banks, leading to a nationwide crisis in liquidity which affected deposits and withdrawals, according to the Libyan central bank.


Iraq’s conditions are somewhat similar to those in Libya; both are dependent on oil to fund their requirements, and yet both their resources have been stripped to the point that they are threatened by a public insurrection that would take down anything in its path. However, Iraq is distinct from the rest of the Arab countries in that it is still suffering from the aftermath of the destruction wrought by the US invasion in 2003, to the extent that Baghdad received the lowest ranking in Mercer’s Quality of Living Survey, issued in February 2016. The ranking was attributed to the lack of security in Baghdad, as well as the unavailability of service, according to the survey, which is based on 40 different indicators, including political and social environment, economic environment, recreation, housing, and natural environment, among others. Iraq was moreover ranked third in the Arab World in IFPRI’s Global Hunger Index, as poverty rates have increased due to the austerity measures adopted by the government following the decline in oil prices. As yet, manifestations of hunger remain within the limits of warnings based on research and theoretical figures. In January 2016, Iraqi MP Zainab Al-Basri warned of a revolution of the hungry, due to the government’s seeming lack of concern for the difficulties endured by the majority of Iraqis.

Awareness of Poverty Remains Low

Ammar Ali Hassan, a researcher in political sociology, contends that there is insufficient awareness among the low-income segments to organize, and as such they rely on individual solutions to their problems. “Social marginalization poses a threat to governments, and whether or not it results in social uprisings, its presence has a negative impact and should thereby be mitigated,” he says. “If the uprising erupts without planning or awareness, it will come to nothing.” Ali Al-Rigaal moreover holds that the “Revolution of the Hungry” would not be the worst possible scenario; even worse, in his opinion, would be the division of society into statelets on the basis of class, cementing decadence and the segregation of low-income segments. This is a phenomenon that he believes regimes have not done enough to address. “Those in power believe that the answer lies in the austerity measures that crush the lower classes, without taking into account how this will affect the future of society and its divisions,” he concludes.
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