From Iran to Tunisia, Sudan and Iraqi Kurdistan, over the past weeks the Middle East has seen a wave of social protests against austerity measures, rising food prices and lifting of fuel and food subsidies. On January 8, Kawa Hassan, Director of EWI's Middle East & North Africa Program, gave an interview to BBC Arabic about these protests often referred to as Bread Revolutions.
BBC Arabic: Are Bread Revolutions a new phenomenon?
Kawa Hassan (KH): Bread revolutions or uprisings [linked to food insecurity], are not new. These kinds of popular protests have occurred throughout contemporary history and in the distant past. For instance there were food uprisings in the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20 centuries. Perhaps one of the most famous bread revolutions is the Women's March on Versailles that started on October 5, 1789. The French women were protesting against high prices and the scarcity of bread- it influenced and intertwined with the French Revolution. In the 20th century, the Middle East was the scene of numerous bread revolutions- Egypt in 1977, Tunisia in 1984, Algeria in 1986, Jordan in 1989- to name a few.
BBC Arabic: Why there is a strong link between bread and uprisings?
KH: As we know bread is a basic staple food for human beings, therefore it is not a surprise that there is an organic link between [the availability] of bread and the outbreak of revolutions. Bread revolutions happen as a result of an economic crisis, food shortages, corruption and mismanagement, harvest failures, food speculation, etc. In some cases the root causes are structural economic crises, in other instances both political and economic factors lead to food uprisings. In theory we may differentiate between the economic and political causes, but in reality it is difficult to decouple the economic and political systems that both produce systemic crises [and eventually lead to social and political protests].
BBC Arabic: So the term bread revolution is used to refer to all kinds of food uprisings?
KH: Indeed bread [is often] used as a symbol to refer to different types of protests against rising food prices and the imposition of taxes. An interesting example is the so called Salt Riot in Russia in 1648. This was triggered by the imposition of a universal tax on salt- it led to an increase in salt prices and subsequent violent protests. Another example would be the potato riots in Russia in the 19th century.
Listen to the full interview in Arabic here. Hassan's remarks starts around the 4:58 mark and ends at 9:00.