Cairo, Paris and the Importance of Bread

The protests in Egypt are really something.

Three weeks in, and just yesterday, they’ve had the biggest crowds yet.

Something struck me, last night, while listening to the news. (Yes, I get most of my news from the radio—how old school!). A commentator on food supply was making an argument that one of the major causes for the turmoil and protest in Egypt (and by extension, Tunisia, Sudan and elsewhere), was food prices. In particular, the price of bread. Apparently, the price of wheat has skyrocketed in recent years. In richer nations, such as ours, the increasing price of bread can be accommodated—we’ll have one less latte, or make some other minor economy—and we’ll make up for it. In poor nations, where the cost of food constitutes a significant portion people’s salaries, the price of food can very quickly become a political issue. How does this relate to the courses I am teaching this semester? For those studying Marx, it should be obvious: the world’s poor have less room to accommodate market fluctuations such as these and will respond quickly and violently when their stomachs are empty.

For Western Civilization, the connection is as profound: historians of the French revolution have, in recent years, argued that one of the major causes for the revolts in 1789 were not ideologically based at all. The people were hungry. The protests could have also been called bread riots. The price of bread had augmented rapidly; people could not feed themselves. Since then, as now, bread constituted a major part of the French diet,  higher bread prices had an immediate impact upon all aspects of life.

Of course, to reduce this all to bread alone, is a bit simplistic, isn’t it? This is not to say that the protestors didn’t have broader ideological principles in mind; in both cases they did (and do). But what made them press for change at this very moment in time? One very important reason is that they could not afford to eat. This would be considered an economic and social problem, and not just a political issue as we are often wont to think. Again we see that politics, economics, and social problems are dynamically intertwined: they all affect each other.

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