The demographic dimension: The role of population growth in the Arab uprisings

 
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By Khaled Diab

Decades of unprecedented population growth have played a significant role in Arab regime repression, the two main waves of revolutions that swept the region, and the fierce counterrevolutions that followed.

Image: ©Khaled Diab

Friday 24 January 2020

Over the past century, the Arab region has experienced dramatic population growth, not only caused by high birth rates but also by drastically increased survival rates and life expectancy. This has resulted in the largest (and most educated) population the region has ever had.

The region, too often dominated by an ageing leadership and elite, has failed – due to a combination of internal and external factors – to take advantage of this population boom, resulting in millions of marginalised and disaffected citizens. With jobs and prospects in short supply and repression in overabundance, people are discontented, restive and angry. This essay explores the direct and indirect roles the region’s demographic dynamics have played in regime repression and neglect, and how this repression of the burgeoning population influenced the two main waves of Arab revolutions that swept the region, and the fierce counterrevolutions that followed.

Even though the rate of population growth has slowed, the region’s population is still expanding, which will  continue to affect Arab political, social, economic and environmental landscapes.

Population power

The Arab region has experienced unprecedented demographic growth in recent decades. This has had profound social, economic, environmental and political consequences. It played not only a significant factor in the revolutionary wave and uprisings that have rocked the region, but also in the repression that preceded and followed it.

This is not to suggest that demographic change is the only or the primary factor at play, nor is it to argue for the simplistic and deterministic theory that revolutions occur when there is a “youth bulge” or that the poor are the authors of their own destitution.

Revolutions are, after all, complicated events that occur during periods of enormous confusion. The motivating factors for which are poorly understood and disputed even by those involved in them or by those watching them closely. Revolutions occur at different places and times for an intricate web of overlapping and oft-contradictory reasons, and can be triggered by very different groups and involve a mindbogglingly diverse array of different players.

Having acknowledged the innate complexity of revolutionary movements and mass uprisings, it is my conviction – based on the evidence at hand – that the region’s demographic evolution was a major factor in sparking the mass revolts which began at the end of 2010, and in fuelling the current second wave of uprisings, though the exact role it has played differed markedly from one country to the other.

Fodder for frustration

As a starting point, we can examine the revolutionary slogans used during protests for evidence of the role of population growth in fuelling popular discontent. “Bread”, or some similar variant, was a common rallying cry across the region, from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond, with the ongoing popular uprising in Sudan initially dubbed the ‘Bread Revolution.’

At one level, this constituted an almost literal call for bread. Food security for poor Arabs has worsened significantly in recent years. Already in 2007 and 2008, and again in 2010-2012, demonstrations and riots broke out in the Middle East and other parts of the world to protest rising food prices, which threatened to turn basic nourishment into a luxury for the poorest.

This was to a large extent due to factors external to the region, such as droughts in grain-exporting countries, rising fuel prices, growing global demand for richer diets, speculation in food commodity markets, and growing demand for biofuels.

However, one factor is firmly domestic: the region’s growing inability to feed itself. Rapid population growth, coupled with water and land scarcity, not to mention the massive loss of arable land due to the dual catastrophes of global warming and urbanisation, have combined to make Arab countries among the most dependent in the world on food imports. One exception is Sudan, which possesses enough arable land to feed itself. However, this land is underutilised while being increasingly seized by foreign investors, especially in the Gulf states, for their own food security.

For example, the region imports nearly three-fifths of the wheat it consumes, with some countries importing as much as 100%. Although malnutrition levels are low by the standards of developing countries, hunger levels are growing, mostly due to conflicts but also due to expanding poverty levels.

Take Egypt as an example. In ancient times, its consistently large food surpluses enabled it to flourish like almost no other civilisation of the time. A century ago, the country was still able to feed itself and produce an agricultural surplus. However, since the mid-20th century, when Egypt’s population began to explode, it became increasingly dependent on food imports, especially wheat.

Today, Egypt imports a large percentage of its population’s calorific needs. This makes the country, like the wider region, extremely vulnerable to weather events, climatic conditions and geopolitical dynamics outside its own borders, in a world where the food surpluses of recent decades are shrinking while the global population continues to grow.

This leaves millions of citizens barely able to subsist in the face of rising prices and tightening supplies, especially as the welfare state continues to be dismantled with the removal of most subsidies. It is no accident that two food price shocks occurring in quick succession in an import-dependent region should play a significant role in sparking mass unrest.

Demographic despair

The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the symbolic act of desperation that set Tunisia on fire in 2010 and resonated with people across the region, touches on another way in which population growth set the stage for revolution.

It is true that Tunisia’s population is growing more slowly (1.1% per year) than the rest of the Arab region, largely thanks to rapidly rising levels of education, especially amongst women, and the enormous empowerment Tunisian women have experienced in recent decades, not to mention successful family planning and reproductive rights programmes. Nevertheless, the population has grown considerably in recent decades. This is not just owing to birth rates but also to survival rates and life expectancy, which have risen dramatically over the past century in Tunisia and the rest of the region. A Tunisian born at the close of World War II could expect to live, on average, to only 37. A Tunisian baby born today can expect to live twice as long, with life expectancy at birth standing at 74 for men and 78 for women, according to the World Health Organisation.

This has resulted in a spectacular population boom, despite Tunisia’s decades-old status as an emigrant country. Between 1921 and 1966, the population doubled to around 4.5 million. Since then, it has more than doubled again, to reach the current 11 million.

Although the early years of independence were marked by fast-paced development that absorbed this rapid enlargement of the population, this eventually began to falter until, gradually, the ranks of the unemployed, underemployed and underpaid swelled to breaking point.

Naturally, rapid population growth was not the only reason why Tunisia was unable, like most of the region, to create sufficient opportunities for its citizens. Other factors included mismanagement, corruption, an ill-conceived industrialisation process, the neglect of the agricultural sector, neo-liberal reforms, as well as the rapid automation of the local and global economy. This was compounded by the pincer movement of competition from the old giants of the West, who dominate high value-added sectors, and the new giants of Asia, who dominate the more labour-intensive sectors on which the region traditionally relies.

The stagnation and even reduction in the fortunes of large swathes of the population coincided with a period in human history when material aspirations have never been higher or more visible to the average citizen, leading to a sense of relative deprivation even in cases where welfare has improved in absolute terms. Not only were the material basics of life expanding rapidly, people were being exposed to aspirational consumerism as never before, from their TVs, in films, on the internet and on the streets, as the gap between the haves and have-nots widened to become a chasm.

This made for a radioactive mix. The unemployed, who were stuck at home or sat at cafes watching their future vanish behind a pall of tobacco smoke, and the working poor who ran flat out on a treadmill that was dragging them downhill towards oblivion, had to put their aspirations on the shelves and their lives in the deep freezer, delaying – sometimes indefinitely – the greatest milestones of their lives, such as marriage, children or even their own place to live.

The Labours of revolution

On the dawn of revolution in 2010, the proportion of the labour force out of work hovered at around 13%, according to the International Labour Organisation. The unemployment situation was considerably worse for youth (30%), the highly educated (23%) and women (19%). This large idle capacity, along with the increasingly neo-liberal direction in which Tunisia was heading, led to the depression of wages for the average worker, which was reflected in the depressingly low official minimum salary of just 235 TND per month (The situation in the build up to the revolution in Sudan at the end of last year was even more acute. The ranks of the jobless swelled almost threefold, from 3 million to 8 million, over a period of just seven years, with the overwhelming majority of young people out of work, according to a recent report).

With the Tunisian political and business elites unable to create enough jobs for the continuously expanding labour force and unwilling to share more equitably the fruits of economic development, the path open to the regime to deal with popular discontentment was the bitter pill of repression with the added sweetener of occasional enticements and incentives.

During the Habib Bourguiba years, repression was high but the enticements were also significant: many subsidised goods, free quality education and a bloated public sector to absorb some of the surplus workforce. Under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the repression remained but the enticements were gradually stripped away, except for the incentive of playing the lottery of aligning oneself to the regime in the hope of getting a bite of its crony capitalist cake.

Fewer sweeteners from the state combined with bubbling resentment and discontentment from a well-educated and aspiring population led to what, in retrospect, turned out to be peak police state. The sense of fear, indignity and humiliation this caused produced the third pillar of the revolution, the quest for freedom and dignity.

Shrinking space for the individual

A similar dynamic prevailed in Egypt, at times more intensely. Since the end of the 19th century, the number of people living in Egypt has increased a staggering tenfold. Most of that exponential growth has been since the mid-20th century, with today’s population, which is approaching 100 million, more than five times that of Egypt’s population in 1947. In the decade between 2006 and 2016, the country’s population grew by 20 million people. Egypt’s rapidly growing population has caused it to climb up the global league table, from 20th largest population in 1950 to 15th in 2014. Egypt’s rapidly rising population is not only attributable to high birth rates but, like Tunisia, also to the dramatic decline in death rates due to the doubling of life expectancy since 1937. This population growth is reflected in Egypt’s intensifying population density, which stands at 1,137 people per square kilometre (2016), if Egypt’s vast areas of unpopulated deserts are excluded, making Egypt the 14th most densely populated country in the world.

The social and environmental effects of this overcrowding are immense. There is growing awareness of the desertification caused by human-induced global warming, albeit mostly elsewhere in the world. However, there is another form of desertification that has swallowed up vast tracts of Egypt’s most fertile arable land: rapid urbanisation. By the mid-1990s already, Egypt had lost 912,000 feddans of agricultural land (over 383,000 hectares) to urbanisation. Another study found that, in the quarter of a century between 1992 and 2015, 74,600 hectares of extremely fertile land in the Nile Delta alone had been destroyed by urbanisation.

Overcrowding also places extreme strain on Egypt’s severely stretched water resources. In the past, Egypt, one of the driest lands on the planet which has been described as the largest oasis in the world, was the gift of the Nile because the river’s abundant waters were more than enough to keep the country fertile and fed. Today the Nile, which experts warn is dying, has become Egypt’s curse. Although the Aswan Dam has been a blessing by storing and regulating water flow, enabling the growing population to quench its thirst even during droughts, it has come with an enormous environmental price tag. The extremely fertile alluvial silt from Ethiopia, which once renewed and regenerated Egypt’s Nile valley, is trapped behind the dam. Compensating for this has required vast amounts of chemical fertilisers, which pollute the land and the river. In addition, the decades-long absence of rejuvenating silt, combined with rising sea levels caused by global warming, has caused many coastal areas to become too salinated for agriculture and is threatening the very integrity of the Nile Delta, which is slowly crumbling into the Mediterranean Sea.

With Egypt’s inhabited area smaller than Switzerland, everywhere – from its smallest towns and villages to its largest metropolises – is teeming with people. Lacking sufficient infrastructure, capacity and willpower to deal with the waste produced by so many tens of millions of humans, the quality of the air Egyptians breathe has become toxic, rubbish overflows to pollute public and natural spaces, from empty plots of land to farmland, while many agricultural canals and streams have become open sewers.

Beyond public health and environmental damage, this extreme overcrowding has serious social and psychological consequences, especially in urban areas. In Cairo, people quite literally live on top of each other. Although this has some undoubted cultural and social advantages, the streets are a constant choking confluence of smog, dust, noise and people. Egyptians cope with this overcrowding differently than, say, the Japanese. The coping mechanisms of choice in Japan are orderliness and elaborate rules for personal space and interpersonal interactions. In contrast, Egyptians tend to embrace the involuntary intimacy imposed by overcrowding by being more intimate. People are casual and sociable in public and often attempt to dissipate the tensions caused by heightened physical proximity with humour.

Nevertheless, living in overcrowded housing in an overcrowded city with constant and intense sensory stimulation is stressful, limits the individual’s personal space and makes privacy a coveted but unattainable prize, especially for the poor. There is often no reprieve or escape from the cacophony. Whereas a couple of generations ago, Cairo abounded with pleasant gardens and parks, today, there are barely any green spaces in the city and almost nowhere to escape the madding and maddening crowds. With housing beyond the means of a large proportion of young people, it has become routine for Egyptians to live with their parents until their late 20s or early 30s, with all that involves in terms of frustration and infantilisation.

Containing and neutralising the seething frustration and popular dissatisfaction required, like in Tunisia, harsh repression combined with sweeteners. However, the abandonment of this unspoken social contract in Egypt was greater than in Tunisia, as almost every area of life was privatised, including healthcare and education, while public services, especially schools and hospitals, were neglected to near death. This, combined with a rapidly growing population, meant that the middle class was withering on the vine, while the ranks of the poor and destitute were continuously reinforced.

Although Egypt’s official unemployment rate in the final quarter of 2010 was 9%, the true unemployment rate was significantly higher, not to mention the working destitute, partly because the Egyptian government counts people who do occasional casual work as being fully employed. Nevertheless, the official figures cannot distort the fact that 40% of the unemployed were university graduates and half of jobless Egyptians were between the age of 20 and 24.

In the build up to the attempted revolution in 2011, Egypt had greater space for opposition, criticism and dissent than Tunisia. Despite this, Tunisia has, in a very short space of time, managed to construct a vibrant democracy. In contrast, Egypt, despite the consistently large mobilisation of protesters for an extended period of time, has slipped back into an even-more repressive form of military dictatorship, which tolerates no dissent and operates predominantly through coercion and oft extreme violence.

How did this transpire?

Two factors loom large here: the role of the military and that of Islamists. Tunisia is among the minority of Arab countries that does not possess a large and politicised army. This served it well in the wake of Ben Ali’s departure. The Tunisian army lacked the interest, culture, means and appetite to exploit the chaos and seize the reins of power. In Egypt, the politicised army, which has enjoyed massive political influence since the Free Officers military coup in 1952, had too much to lose and perceived the popular calls for freedom as an existential threat to its parallel economy and society.

Another factor was the nature of the Islamist movement in both countries. Egypt has a large and largely uncompromising Islamist movement. In Tunisia, mainstream Islamists are more pragmatic and secularised, and less influential, than their Egyptian counterparts. This led to Tunisia’s Ennahda party engaging in the politics of compromise and consensus, which helped facilitate the country’s relatively smooth transition to democracy.

Beyond these immediate factors, demography also played a role. Not only is Tunisia less crowded than Egypt, its birth rates declined sooner and are far lower than Egypt’s. Despite Egypt’s rapid population growth, the fertility rate of individual women has declined significantly in recent decades, more than halving since 1960 to reach 3.4 in 2017. Nevertheless, Egypt’s per-capita birth rate is nearly double that of Tunisia’s.

The relative stabilising of Tunisia’s population, as well as its higher level of average education and lower average levels of destitution, made the country fertile for positive change. In fact, political demographers were forecasting already in 2011, contrary to the gloomy predictions of many political pundits, that Tunisia stood a “good chance” of becoming a democracy within five years. Decent leadership in civil society, trade unions and politics, as well as a symbiotic culture of consensus and compromise, managed to capitalise on these favourable conditions and delivered democracy faster than even this short estimate predicted. Of course, Tunisia is not yet out of the woods; if it fails to deliver economic welfare and social justice, the progress of recent years can be rapidly undone.

The demography of things to come

The above illustrates how the dramatic demographic changes of recent decades have exercised profound direct and indirect influence on the socioeconomic and political reality of the Arab region.

Demographic change is likely to continue to play a strong role in the region’s future. Population change optimists point to the global trend of declining population growth rates and past human ingenuity to predict that we will be able to cope with the challenges of demographic expansion until we reach peak population around mid-century.

However, this is not a foregone conclusion for everywhere in the world, including the Middle East. Many Arab-majority countries continue to have a population growth rate above the global average. This is partly because, in my analysis, although a growing number of people have woken up to the advantages of smaller families, the pressure from tradition, parents and religious conservatives to have larger families remains difficult to resist for many.

Moreover, the aridity of the region makes it extremely vulnerable to food supply shocks in other parts of the world, which could potentially become more frequent and prolonged due to the combined effects of global warming and the continued enlargement of the world’s population in terms of absolute numbers. Moreover, global and local economic inequalities are likely to intensify any crisis that occurs. This is compounded by cross-border competition for scarce water, such as the brewing conflict between the Nile Basin states over the river’s water resources, especially between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, whose population today has overtaken that of Egypt.

Just as the potato famine in 19th-century Europe, particularly in Ireland, became a famine rather than a crisis due to the massive social and economic inequalities of the time, combined with the Malthusian propensity to blame the poor for the avarice of the rich, future food shortages could be intensified by unfair local and global distribution and consumption patterns.

Demographic and environmental change could potentially lead to a perfect storm, triggering humanitarian, political and social catastrophe in large parts of the Arab region. Alternatively, the region may continue to struggle and muddle through until its population peaks, after which welfare will improve. At present, Tunisia offers the greatest hope and model for the future of the region, as does Lebanon, which has a similar demographic dynamic to Tunisia, if the current protests trigger the right kind of momentum for change and the destabilising war in neighbouring Syria does not push this fragile and diverse country over the edge.

The most promising and hopeful possibility for the region’s demography is that increasingly empowered and aware citizens will engage in voluntary birth control, which would enable the population to even out sooner than current projections, while corrupt and repressive elites will be replaced by more enlightened political, economic and social leaders who will revive the region’s development potential by utilising its relatively young and talented populations for the greater collective and individual good of all concerned.

_____

This article was first published by Rowaq Arabi on 23 December 2019.

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Tunisia: Freedom and the pursuit of unhappiness

 
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By Khaled Diab

With greater freedom has come greater unhappiness in Tunisia. Behind this apparent paradox is economic hardship and nostalgia for a past that never was.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Tuesday 6 November 2018

In these dark times for the Middle East and with democracy on the retreat even in its oldest and most established strongholds, Tunisia is the exception that proves hope is not just for optimistic fools.

With the revolutionary wave that began in Tunisia at the end of 2010 and swept the region with its infectious demands for economic empowerment, social dignity and political freedom, this small North African country is the exception that proves that despotic rule need not be the rule in the Arab world.

Across the region, many pro-democracy, progressive and liberal activists, opposition figures, human rights defenders and ordinary citizens who believe in freedom, Tunisia inspires them to believe that they are not being delusional in believing their own countries can be reformed.

Over the past almost two years of living in Tunisia, I have found the country’s newfound freedom remarkable, as have other Egyptians based here or visiting. For a start, despite fears that freedom would lead to extremist-led chaos, Tunisia has managed, unlike so many revolutions throughout history, to maintain stability and pass or draft landmark legislation to ensure fundamental rights and equality.

“Tunisia has a vibrant civil society, exceptional record on women’s rights in the Arab world, as well as, overall, a politics, while far from perfect, that is continuously being negotiated forward,” contends Amro Ali, an Egyptian sociology professor whom I met during his recent visit to Tunisia. “What started with them was no ordinary feat; they raised the standards and they’ll be held up to it. So they will be treated like a political beacon, whether they like it or not.”

The street continues to be a major pillar of Tunisian democracy and political direct action continues apace, albeit with less intensity than in the heady early days of the revolution. Barely a week goes by without a demonstration or a strike somewhere in the country, to protest economic hardship, unemployment, government action or government inaction.

Tunisians, both friends and strangers, have plenty of opinions on politics and other issues and they have no reservations about sharing them, even during brief encounters at cafes, parties or on the street, especially when they find out you are an Egyptian.

Although I have no personal pre-revolutionary reference point, Tunisians tell me that this is a far cry from how things used to be in the days of the dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Tunisian broadcasters have built up an impressive track record in a short span of time, and I am regularly impressed by the depth and breadth of public debate on the airwaves.

Taxi drivers have been a colourful, engaging, eccentric and diverse source of political commentary, and I have compiled enough amusing anecdotes to write a short book. But this was not always the case. One taxi driver admitted to me that, in the past, he would have been afraid to even think Ben Ali’s name while on the job, whereas now he had turned his taxi into a political salon on wheels.

Tunisian broadcasters have built up an impressive track record in a short span of time. Whereas there has been a trend in the media of maturer democracies towards dumbing down their content, Tunisia has been wisening up its coverage. For instance, many FM music radio stations in Europe and America either carry no political content or cut it up into tiny, bite-sized morsels, out of fear their audiences will switch off. Not so in Tunisia, where even the most commercial music stations carry hours of news, in-depth coverage, discussion and debate.

Despite the immense political, social and cultural progress, the sense of widespread disillusionment and despondency is palpable, and this is confirmed by surveys and polls. The number of Tunisians I encounter who are unhappy with the situation, are sceptical about the path the country is taking and are pessimistic about the future is truly astonishing.

“I think that the Tunisians had built up high expectations about what the revolution could bring, but the political class quickly disappointed,” observes Sarah Ben Hamadi, a blogger, former journalist and deputy secretary-general of the Tunis-based Democratic Lab think tank. “The economic crisis felt by the middle class, which is making the daily lives of Tunisians increasingly more difficult, makes it harder to appreciate progress in terms of freedom.”

Although Tunisia’s economy has slowed down, it continues to grow, but not at a rate that has enabled it to make any serious dent in joblessness numbers nor to improve people’s sense of economic welfare. In fact, with a weakening currency, rising inflation and the phasing in of austerity measures, including the removal of subsidies and raising of fuel and other prices, Tunisians feel worse off today than before the revolution.

“[Tunisians] don’t really count social and political progress as wealth,” asserts Karim Benabdallah, a blogger, activist and photographer. “They usually see things in their own narrow perspective.”

Tunisia’s economic woes have hit young people, who spearheaded the revolution but still make up the bulk of the unemployed, particularly hard, leading them to “feel neglected, unheard and invisible,” according to Omezzine Khelifa, the founder of Mobdiun, which researches the status of youth from neglected neighbourhoods in Tunis and seeks to find ways to empower them politically.

“Those who live in marginalised areas feel the state is not doing anything for them and have witnessed how any form of protest can turn against them in a violent way,” she adds. “They say police is not here to protect us, rather to harm us.”

Although Ben Ali’s repressive state is largely gone and protest is a protected constitutional right, police brutality and violence remain a problem, with class and age affecting how the police treat citizens, as reflected in how the police overreact to protests in poorer neighbourhoods.

In addition, youth in marginalised areas are more likely than their better-off counterparts to experience other forms of violence, including from their peers on the street and domestic violence at home. The alienation and frustration feeding this violence can also be turned inwards. According to Mobdiun, between 6% and 10% of teenagers in one poorer neighbourhood of Tunis have attempted to commit suicide. More alarmingly, similar suicide rates exist among youth in better-off areas.

This points to an existential crisis among young Tunisians, with dreams of emigration their escapism from their dispiriting reality, with some numbing the pain and the unbearable heaviness of being through self-medication. “I said to myself: I’ll find a job, I’ll manage, I’ll find… and nothing, I did not find anything,” confessed one young man who spoke to Mobdiun. “A friend comes to me and suggests we ‘fly’ on a train (i.e. ride on the outside) because we have no money, we are obliged, how else will we buy cannabis to smoke in the evening and to escape a little?”

Some find escapism in the past. While many young Tunisians appreciate the freedom under which they are growing up, others see it as overrated, especially since a whole generation is now emerging that never experienced the bad old days first hand. “The social and political progress seen by outsiders, it’s honestly a big joke,” contends Malek, a law student. “It only proves that they have no idea about how it used to be before.”

This sense of a paradise lost actually originates with and is more common amongst older people, who have established a veritable nostalgia industry, which is slowly trickling down the age pyramid. To hear Tunisian nostalgists speak, one is left with the impression that everything was better prior to the revolution: the economy was better, people were better off, people had a greater sense of civic duty, etc.

Some of those who subscribe to this sort of narrative do so out of frustration at their present hardships or fear of what lies ahead. Others do so as an expression of their authoritarian tendencies. They believe, or have been conditioned to believe, that Arabs do not understand or are not ready for democracy, and that they need a “strong” leader to keep them in check. The number of times I have heard this view, often combined with admiration for the likes of Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi or, worse, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, is shocking.

“The fact that no leader has emerged also means that there is always a certain nostalgia for a time when the president enjoyed great authority,” explains Sarah Ben Hamadi.

However, what nostalgists do not seem to comprehend is that if the calibre of leadership that has emerged since the revolution has been found wanting compared with the Ben Ali era, which I am not sure is the case, this is, in reality, the legacy of decades of dictatorial monopoly over power and the accompanying elimination or sidelining of a viable opposition. In addition, Tunisia is no longer a one-man show and is founded on consensus politics and pluralism, which appears messier but is fairer and holds leaders to greater account and scrutiny.

A similar confusing of cause and effect, of symptom and disease, afflicts the question of economic welfare and prosperity. If life was so great under Ben Ali, the question begs itself: why was there so much desperation, symbolically represented by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi and Hosni Kalaya, and why did Tunisians rise up to demand not just freedom but also bread?

Linking the current economic crisis to the revolution, as many Tunisians do, is wishful thinking, in my analysis. Decades of economic mismanagement and crony capitalism cannot be reversed in a few short years.

If anything, the reason why Tunisia’s economy is performing relatively poorly, failing to create enough jobs and to distribute wealth more evenly, is not because the revolution demolished what came before but because the revolution left the country’s previous economic architecture too intact. In fact, I am personally convinced that if Ben Ali were still in power, the Tunisian economy would likely be in crisis.

In addition to Tunisia’s own internal faults, there is the regional and global dimension contributing to its economic woes. Not only is the fallout of the global economic crisis of 2008-09 still hurting Tunisia, the upheavals and conflicts across the region, especially in neighbouring Libya, have had a negative impact on the Tunisian economy.

The austerity-driven approach of international financial institutions are making a bad situation worse, as is the unfair structure of the global currency regimen, which excessively rewards rich countries and penalises poorer ones. In fact, with an economy barely larger than that of a multinational corporation, Tunisia is being crushed by the old titans of the West, who are desperately clinging on to their old privileges, and the new titans, foremost among them China, who are carving out a space for themselves, not just at Europe and America’s expense, but more brutally at the expense of developing countries with higher labour costs and smaller economies.

Constructing an a-historical narrative about the splendour of the Tunisia of Dictatorship Past will not restore a lustre which never existed. Instead, if believed by enough Tunisians, it risks leading to the Tunisia of Dictatorship Future, and the deconstruction or destruction of the most significant gains the revolution has delivered: freedom, dignity and collective decision-making.

The creativity, intelligence, wisdom and guts that overthrew a dictator and built a vibrant democracy should and can be harnessed to develop an economy that serves all Tunisians.

—-

This article was first published by The New Arab on 18 October 2018.

 

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Podcast: Baladi – from bread to dance

 
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Baladi is one of those elusive Arabic words that can mean different things to different people at different times.

Tahiya Carioca

Thursday 27 June 2018

‘Baladi’ is one of those Arabic words that is hard to translate. In Egypt, it can mean native, local, authentic, folk, rustic, and even unrefined, uncouth, and low class.

Derived from ‘balad’, the Arabic for country, town or village, baladi can be used to describe traditional culture, music and cuisine, a little like the English adjective ‘country’. It is often used to refer to the native, in other words, the “local”, even if the baladi was once not local at all, as opposed to the foreign, mostly western.

‘Eish baladi’ describes the native round bread that Egyptians traditionally eat. And ‘Raqs baladi’ refers to what English speakers call belly-dancing. Before entering the cabaret and the fantasies of orientalists, it was the traditional form of dancing that Egyptian girls and many boys learnt and performed at family events, such as weddings and feasts, minus the glitzy, revealing outfits that have become the stuff of cliché.

There was a time, not long ago, when the world’s best and most innovative baladi dancers were Egyptians, and no Egyptian film was complete without an elaborate dance routine. Possibly the most legendary of the silver screen dancing queens was Tahiya Carioca, who began her illustrious career in the 1940s.

Today, fewer and fewer Egyptian women are dancing professionally. Paradoxically, this is both a sign of growing religious conservatism, which sees belly-dancing as sinful, and of rising gender equality, where ever more women feel that belly-dancing objectifies them.

Meanwhile, belly-dancing has become a popular fad amongst some European and American women, with schools popping up in some of the most unexpected of places, from Russia to the USA. Today, many belly-dancers in Egyptian and Arab nightclubs are from Eastern Europe, though Egyptian aficionados believe they lack the mischief and spontaneity of their Egyptian counterparts.

Egyptians feel both shame and pride, towards things that are baladi. While the so-called ‘foreigner complex’ means Egyptians often see western things as superior and local as inferior, nationalistic pride pulls them the other way. This leads to the bizarre situation where baladi forms of music can, at once, be the object of disdain for some, especially from better-off classes, but also the subject of celebration, especially among the young or the revolutionary, who are reclaiming and reinventing this heritage, often in hybrid form.

Amid all the upheavals since the revolution in 2011, baladi again carries street cred. This can be seen in the popularity of T-shirts with Arabic slogans and calligraphy, where English once ruled. You also see it in how traditional teahouses and eateries are now trendy amongst the middle and upper classes.

But as has long been in the case, Egyptians are finding new and creative ways to merge and fuse the baladi with the foreign to create new varieties and flavours of the local.

___

This recording first appeared on the BBC World Service’s The Cultural Frontline on 4 June 2018.

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Recipe for gourmet camping

 
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ByRay O’Reilly

Who said camping has to be hard ground, twisted sleeping bags and Knorr’s instant pasta dishes? Here’s a recipe for gourmet camping in Burgundy.

Wednesday 10 August 2011

I’ve just scoffed a goose terrine and a fine bottle of Burgundy. In this version of fine dining, there are no snooty waiters, no starched table cloths – in fact no table at all – and no cutlery, glasses or any other standard accoutrement associated with such delicacies.

Ingredients for this dining experience:

-one Swiss Army knife

-one mug

-one artisanal terrine from the region around Auxerre

-one bottle of reasonably priced Henry de Vézelay Pinot Noir 2009

-one fresh baguette

-optional chair, plate, cherry tomatoes, local cheese

Dining ambience:

-roosting birdsong

-mating frog calls

-crickets

-water feature (open spillway)

Preparation:

-shopping itinerary: if the ‘travelling salesman’ algorithm can’t be used to plan an efficient route for visiting cellars and towns in Burgundy, then I suggest you head south for about an hour, taking in recommended sites, then do the same in the easterly, northerly and westerly directions until back to base. You should also:

-take time to visit artisanal shops with local produce (tell them the wines you bought or ask for recommendations on wines to accompany your terrine/cake/cheese, etc.)

-key to the preparations is the right mental state: make sure you are both tired and hungry as hell (I went on a two-hour bike ride around the nearby vineyards and back roads, taking in the terroir, you could say, before visiting the cellars

-back at the campsite: open the bottle and then go and have a shower to wash off the road and freshen up. By the time you’re back, the wine is ready for drinking

-open your jar of goose/rabbit/duck/pork … terrine

-tear off a large piece of baguette (big enough to tear the roof of your mouth) and smear a ridiculous quantity of tasty congealed meat onto the bread

-wash it back with a gulp of Burgundy from your mug

-repeat above step (perhaps adding a cherry tomato or two to lighten the meatiness if you can’t handle it) until you feel totally stuffed and satisfied with life!

Afters:

-a handful of mixed unsalted nuts, dried fruit and broken pieces of plain chocolate

-more wine

Then all you need to do is rinse the cup, wipe the knife and crash in your (wonderfully spinning) tent

Joy.

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By bread alone

 
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By Osama Diab

The Egyptian government looks to overhaul its bread subsidy system, but experts warn of a possible popular backlash.

14 April 2010

As the sun starts to set over the sprawling Sayyida Zeinab market, sellers begin to pack up their stalls, stowing fruit, vegetables and meat that have doubled in price during the last five years.

But not far away, the lines are still long at a small, worn bakery that sells subsidised bread, with dozens of men and women standing patiently, plastic bags in hand, waiting for a chance to snap up loaves at five piastres apiece.

With inflation hovering in the double digits, the lines are getting longer; a growing number of people are becoming reliant on the one food item that hasn’t seen its price change in the past two decades.

But there are signs that the government, burdened by an annual bread subsidy bill of LE 16 billion, is planning to change radically the way it supplies bread to tens of millions of poor and working class Egyptians.

That is a prospect that worries Cairenes, many of whom lived through traumatic plans to revamp bread subsidies during the 1970s.

“Everything gets expensive: gas cylinders, sugar. What’s next? Bread?” says a woman standing in line at the Sayyida Zeinab bakery, who asked to remain anonymous. “Bread means life for us. If they change its price, people will die.”

The government has not made its plans public, but a top official at the Ministry of Social Solidarity told Business Today Egypt that it was considering handing cash or in-kind subsidies directly to consumers, instead of supplying discounted flour to state-licensed bakeries, a process widely viewed as rife with corruption.

“There are no plans to eliminate subsidies, but we want… to reform the supply chain system,” said the official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorised to deal with the media. “We have a sincere will to reform and make sure the subsidies reach the right target group with a decent quality.”

The government has promised any changes to the system — which according to media reports could be overhauled as early as next year — would leave the total value of subsidies untouched.

But critics are worried that changes to the massive subsidy programme could result in a painful adjustment period. Egypt uses 13 million tons of flour per year to produce 220 million loaves of subsidised bread daily. Every day, the average urbanite has 3.1 loaves of subsidised bread, while rural dwellers consume 1.9 loaves.

What worries critics most is that the bread subsidy system itself might well be under threat. The centerpiece of the country’s social safety net, food subsidies amount to about 1.8% of Egypt’s GDP. Leaders have been eager to slash that tab in an effort to reduce the country’s deficit, which currently stands at LE 57.5 billion.

The government has cut or reduced stipends on several essentials, including gas, as part of a slate of market reforms. While the liberalisation push has resulted in significant economic growth, experts warn against repeating history and deregulating the bread market.

A half-baked plan

On January 18, 1977, news spread that the government was planning to eliminate subsidies on basic commodities, including bread.

Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets to protest the decision, one of the biggest social insurrections in the recent history of Egypt.

The uprising was eventually put down by the army, but the government of Anwar Sadat was forced to backpedal on the reforms.

“There’s an economic term — a Giffen good,” says Karim Badr El-Din, a professor of economics at Sixth of October University. Unlike most commodities, “when incomes decline, its consumption increases.

“In Egypt, the Giffen good is a loaf of bread. It’s a good with strategic implications for the nation.”

Governments have to be careful when they fiddle with things like that or they risk sparking an outpouring of popular anger, he says.

“The poorest segment of society has most of their income allocated for food going… to bread because it’s cheap and sates their hunger. If people can’t afford that … you can expect a reaction from them.”

That was evident two years ago when the price of wheat skyrocketed on the global market and the government struggled to provide enough flour to local bakeries. Shortages led to violence in bread lines and were among the causes of Cairo-wide protests.

John Salevurakis, a professor of economics at the American University in Cairo who specialises in food subsidies, says opening up the market can be a “myopic” approach.

“What we have learned from recent events is that the wholehearted embrace of liberalisation and worshipping at the altar of efficiency has the ability to yield or hasten our approach to crisis,” he says, a nod to the global economic downturn.

A state secret

To date, the government has refused to reveal its precise plans for the bread subsidy system. But a February article in al-Masry al-Youm, quoting an unnamed source, said starting from 2011, citizens will be able to choose between either direct cash payments or in-kind subsidies, most likely in the form of vouchers. Citizens who get cash subsidies would have to buy bread at the market price, which some experts estimate could reach 20 piastres a loaf — four time the subsidised rate.

Officials are eager to make the change because up to 15% of the subsidised flour provided to bakeries is siphoned off and sold on the open market, according to al-Masry al-Youm.

Changes to the system could have a dramatic effect on the more than 18,000 bakeries authorised to sell subsidised bread, 90% of which are privately owned. For decades, they have produced relatively low-quality bread but had no shortage of customers.

Many bakers say they have no problem charging market rates, but some clearly aren’t prepared for the no-holds barred liberalisation of the sector.

“They should only allow authorised bakeries to sell bread, otherwise our business will be harmed because anyone would then have the chance to make and sell bread,” says Othman, the owner of the Sayyida Zeinab bakery, who asked his family name not be published.

Salevurakis supports a gradual elimination of subsidies so wages will have time to adjust. “The only way we can reduce or eliminate subsidies is to adopt a gradualist approach where the long-term schedule of reduction or elimination is known and credible,” says Salevurakis.

Bread in colloquial Arabic is aish, which translates to life, and for the 44% of the country living below $2 a day, according to the World Bank, the subsidies are a matter of survival.

“The humanitarian in me says that the current state of affairs is the only option,” says Salevurakis.

“The economist in me says that it’s unsustainable, and the pragmatist in me says that we can achieve economically rational results only over a very long period of adjustment.”

This article first appeared in the March 2010 edition of Business Today Egypt. Republished here with the author’s consent.

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