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The Role of Rising Food Prices in Egypt’s Revolution

November 30, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Egypt's rising food prices are helping fuel the revolution that led to this week's parliamentary elections. In collaboration with The Center for Investigative Reporting, Homelands Productions and Marketplace, Sandy Tolan reports as part of a new series called "Food for 9 Billion."

GWEN IFILL: We turn now to Egypt and a report on how rising food prices helped fuel the revolution that led to this week’s parliamentary elections.

This story marks the launch of a new series, Food for 9 Billion, a year-long project of the Center for Investigative Reporting, Homelands Productions, PBS NewsHour and Marketplace.

The reporter is Sandy Tolan of Homelands Productions.

SANDY TOLAN, Homelands Productions: This little market in an upscale Cairo neighborhood caters to the servant class with simple, low-end produce. It’s what Qotb (ph) and Sabah Orany Saber (ph) can afford.

WOMAN (through translator): We used to eat off of our land. But here and now, everything is expensive.

SANDY TOLAN: Since 2007, global food shortages have created huge price spikes. The cost of tomatoes, cooking oil and lentils skyrocketed and helped fuel the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak.

WOMAN (through translator): The revolution started because of the price increase. In the old days, nothing like this happened. Whether it was meat, chicken or vegetables, food wasn’t this expensive.

SANDY TOLAN: Qotb works at this villa as a night watchman and chauffeur. His family lives in the front room. They’re not going hungry. But like the 40 percent of Egyptians who live on $2 a day or less, the family struggles to put food on the table. They spend about $25 a week on food. That’s more than half the family budget.

MAN (through translator): We are unable to save money, so until God makes it easier, we are just taking it step by step.

SANDY TOLAN: Qotb didn’t take part in the revolution. He didn’t have time. The closest he got to Tahrir Square was when he dropped off his boss there. She’s a journalist for Al-Jazeera.

He hopes the new government will help him educate his children, since the family has no savings.

PHILIP RIZK, filmmaker: In Egypt, this price crisis has not come down at all. I mean, for the common family, the prices of food are a daily crisis.

SANDY TOLAN: During the revolution, Egyptian filmmaker and activist Philip Rizk spent every day at Tahrir Square.

PHILIP RIZK: Most people can’t even afford protesting anymore, because they’re not formally employed, which means you have to scrounge for work day in and day out.

SANDY TOLAN: For millennia, it wasn’t like that. The fertile silt of the Nile made Egypt a nation of farmers, producing daily bread for all the people.

The nation had a secure food supply created at home. Now, with 85 million people, Egypt is the world’s biggest importer of wheat. Much of it comes from the U.S. and Russia. Government support for small farms dwindled under the Mubarak regime, and with strong encouragement from USAID, a major shift took place. A new policy arrived: growing high-value cash crops for export.

TAREK TAWFIK, Farm Frites: We were the first company to go and farm potatoes in the middle of the desert out of nowhere. People thought that we were lunatics.

SANDY TOLAN: In the late 1980s, when Mubarak enticed Egyptian capitalists with incentives to green up desert lands, entrepreneur Tarek Tawfik was among the first to answer the call.

TAREK TAWFIK: I went to look at where the land, the factory would be built, and it was just pure desert. Actually, it was depressing. I said, for heaven’s sake, you know, I mean, this is where I’m going to be working.

SANDY TOLAN: Tawfik is part of a new class of MBA managers bringing foreign investment, a lot of it from the Gulf, to Egypt’s new export ag sector.

TAREK TAWFIK: In no time, there was this factory built up, farms set up. Three or four other factories mushroomed out of this factory.

SANDY TOLAN: Today, the desert road between Cairo and Alexandria is lined with factory farms to grow luxury produce for the European table, like these strawberries at Americana Farms. Factories like this take fruits vegetables and fruits and add value. Produce is delivered from the nearby farms, graded by size and inspected to meet international quality standards, then passed through industrial-sized freezers to extend shelf life before they’re sealed into plastic bags for shipment abroad.

MAN: This is a big opportunity for us to export things, a product to Europe or to United States.

SANDY TOLAN: But it wasn’t patriotism that got so many investors to build farm factories out in the desert. It was cheap land, cheap water, and cheap power, all financed through cheap credit to those with the right connections.

Economist Magda Kandil says there’s a name for this practice.

MAGDA KANDIL, Egyptian Center for Economic Studies: Crony capitalism. Basically, you have an entrepreneur who is well-connected to people with high authority. And through this connection, they are able to seize a lot of benefits in the form of land allocation, access to cheap credit, so you end up milking a lot of benefit for yourself.

SANDY TOLAN: And small farmers? Many ended up here, in Cairo. Well over a million left the farm over the last 20 years, in part because of laws that increased rents to family farmers by more than 600 percent. Small farmers flooded the cities looking for menial labor.

Qotb, the Cairo chauffeur and security guard, was one of them.

MAN (through translator): Life was getting harder on me and my father. Income was getting limited, so I came to Cairo. I left so much behind. I left my heritage and land of origin. But, in the end, that’s life.

SANDY TOLAN: When he can, Qotb travels back to his family home in Al Fayoum to bring some cash to his father, who still works the parched land.

MAN (through translator): I wish I could be with my father on the farmland. But we are a big family, and the land could not support all of us.

SANDY TOLAN: Qotb’s father was given these two acres in the early 1950s under a land reform program of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. It was a cherished gift for a poor family. But under Mubarak, families here say, water was steadily diverted toward crony projects, and now Qotb’s father gets only a slow trickle once a week.

In fact, the government stole the water from the people, say local farmers, including this neighbor of Qotb, Hussein (ph), who took me on his scooter to show how the water was diverted from the main canal, Chinatown-style, to help a rich man’s desert bloom.

MAN (through translator): This is our main source of water, that what used to cultivate all our old land from before.

SANDY TOLAN: It was here, Hussein says, at this irrigation diversion gate, that farmers fought with local police over which direction the water would flow. At one point, he says, gun battles broke out.

MAN (through translator): Look here, right here in front of you. It was given to the cronies, to the families, to the well-connected people. And this is why there was a revolution.

SANDY TOLAN: Hussein tells us a story over tea: When Mubarak fell, he was on his way to Tahrir Square, part of this team of local farmers fighting the corruption they say was forcing them from their land.

Hussein says 80 percent of his generation has already left the land. They no longer enjoy meals from food grown at home. Landless peasants increasingly depend on imports. Some see it as a national security issue.

MAMDOUH HAMZA, engineer: You cannot guarantee the price of the international market. You cannot guarantee the availability. And one day, everybody will keep his wheat to himself. It could happen.

SANDY TOLAN: Mamdouh Hamza was one of Mubarak’s strongest critics. He’s a well-connected civil engineer with his hands in many national projects. He watched over many young people during the dramatic days last February at Tahrir Square.

He says, for a stable Egypt, new leaders need to focus on growing more food at home. Otherwise, he says, the country could be vulnerable to future price spikes.

MAMDOUH HAMZA: We must have at least 80 percent strategically produced in this country. Last year, Russia said, I’m not going to export wheat. People could use that strategically against us to push us to do things we shouldn’t, wouldn’t otherwise like to do.

SANDY TOLAN: Hamza says this means more efficient use of irrigation, farmer cooperatives on larger plots, and preventing developers from gobbling up the 5 percent of Egypt’s land that is suitable for farming. Hamza quotes an old Egyptian proverb that speaks to the wisdom of growing your own food on your own land.

MAMDOUH HAMZA: If you don’t eat with your hand in the farm to produce your food, you will not be able to think with your own brain; somebody will think for you. Who — who will feed you?

SANDY TOLAN: As for Qotb and his wife, they no longer eat by their own hand. A laborer of the landless class, Qotb still dreams of going back to Al Fayoum.

MAN (through translator): We could have worked together as one big family, instead of being divided. I dream about it all the time, but I don’t have the money to support that dream or to go back home.

SANDY TOLAN: Now the family is part of an urban force demanding lower food prices and access to education as the price for peace under a new regime.

MAN (through translator): I hope the children will do great things. Maybe my daughter can be president. She’s getting her education. And I will support her all the way, until my last breath.

SANDY TOLAN: Qotb says, in two weeks, with his children in mind, he will vote in a free election for the first time.

GWEN IFILL: Qotb lives in Giza, which votes next month. Elections and runoffs for both houses of Parliament continue until March.


Reporter: Sandy Tolan
Producer:  Charlotte Buchen
Senior producer: David Ritsher
Production assistant:  Mary Jirmanus
Camera: Charlotte Buchen
Editor:  Charlotte Buchen
Local fixer:  Madiha Kassem
Additional field translation: Magdy Kassem
Executive producer, Food for 9 Billion: Sharon Tiller