A New Climate for Peace: Egypt
The 2011 political crisis and bread riots
On January 25, 2011, the Egyptian population took to the streets to protest the nearly 30-year-old Mubarak regime. They objected to the regime’s oppression, the lack of freedom of speech, corruption, unemployment, wages, and food price inflation. While these factors were not new to Egypt, many commenters have identified an increase in poverty coinciding with sudden food price spikes as a core driver of the protests.
The conflict risk posed by high or volatile food prices is highly context-specific. In Egypt, soaring food prices acted as a catalyst. However, they were neither a necessary nor sufficient condition to explain the violent civil unrest in 2011 and 2013.
As one of the world’s biggest wheat importers, Egypt is highly vulnerable to food price shocks. Only 4 percent of Egypt’s territory is suitable for agriculture, water scarcity is increasing, and the country’s population is growing. Climate change is projected to decrease rainfall by more than 9 percent in the central parts of the country, threatening the Nile River. A total of 80 percent of the country’s water is used for agriculture.
Egyptian households spend more than 40 percent of their income on food and are therefore highly sensitive to food price fluctuations, particularly in urban areas like Cairo, where the protests broke out. Egypt has a long-standing tradition of subsidizing food, especially wheat, to counter recurrent shocks and maintain political stability. With nearly 18 percent of the Egyptian population suffering from food insecurity, this food supply system has reached its limit, and the crises in 2008 and 2011 have underscored the government’s inability to ensure sustainable food security for its people, eroding its legitimacy.
The food subsidies were criticized for being costly and inefficient. In 2008–9, the fiscal cost of food subsidies accounted for 2 percent of GDP. In addition, 28 percent of food subsidies did not reach the most vulnerable households. At the macro level, government subsidies widened the budget deficit and deepened Egypt’s dependency on external investors. Political instability in Egypt cut foreign investments and reduced tourism, expanding the finance gap, which made it difficult to implement the necessary reforms.
The recent reforms undertaken by the Egyptian government are a good step. The government could increase spending on health and education, and the new conditional cash transfers will improve the likelihood that the aid will reach the most vulnerable households and enhance the social contract between the state and its citizens.
- Hendrix, Cullen S. and Henk-Jan Brinkman 2013: Food insecurity and conflict dynamics: causal linkages and complex feedbacks. In: Stability: International Journal of Security and Development 2:26, pp 1–18.
- IMF 2014: Arab countries in transition: an update on economic outlook and key challenges. Washington, DC: International Monetary Fund.
- Simmons, Emmy 2013: Harvesting peace: food security, conflict and cooperation (ECSP Report). Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
- Werrell, Caitlin E. und Francesco Femia (eds.) 2013: The Arab Spring and climate change: a climate and security correlations series. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress.
- WFP 2013: The status of poverty and food security in Egypt: analysis and policy recommendations. Preliminary Summary Report. Cairo: WFP.
- World Bank 2010: Egypt's food subsidies: benefit incidence and leakages. Washington, DC.
- World Bank 2015: Climate change knowledge portal. Egypt. Retrieved 30 Mar 2015, from http://sdwebx.worldbank.org/climateportal/.