The Importance of Wheat, Not Tweets, to the Arab Spring

English: Hosni Mubarak facing the Tunisian dom...

A year on from the wave of uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) numerous pieces of analysis have been published about the causes of the social unrest. The consensus is that demographics play a large part: the region is undergoing a “youth bulge” – one in five people living in MENA are between 15 and 24 and many of them expressed little hope of raising their standard of living. The population’s relative youth also helps to explain the role played by mobile devices and social media in the organisation of protests and demonstrations. Then there was the matter of political succession; some MENA countries have fallen into a form of dynastic republicanism, a perplexing hybrid of a monarchy and a presidency that’s passed from father to son.

But was this all? In the two years preceding the social unrest in North Africa the U.S. government’s response to the global financial crisis was for the Federal Reserve to print billions of dollars. The knock-on effect of this fiscal strategy was to cause asset and commodity prices to rise, causing instability elsewhere in the world. Asset price inflation meant that millions of people found it harder to feed their families. Mohamed Bouazizi, the street vendor whose self-immolation proved the catalyst for the protests, came from a village which, according to the New York Times, suffered 30 per cent unemployment. Bouazizi could find no other work and supported several family members with earnings of $140 per month made by selling fruit on the roadside.

Following the popular uprising in Tunisia, civil unrest spread across the region. During this time – in fact, between the ousting of President Ben Ali of Tunisia and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt – researchers at Barings bank released an interesting data set. The numbers revealed how the rising prices of commodities had caused the price of bread to rise in many MENA countries and compared this data with that of European territories that experienced significant social unrest in the mid nineteenth century.

The data from the nineteenth century comes from economists Helge Berger and Mark Spoerer who calculated the scale of bread price inflation in some of the key locations of the 1848 revolutions that spread from France through the Italian and German states, Denmark, Hungary and parts of the Habsburg empire. The blue diamonds towards the bottom left of the graph show countries such as Sweden, Russia and England where wheat prices were comparatively stable – and there were no revolutions. The mapping demonstrates that the more dramatic the increase in the price of wheat, the more likely it was that revolution occured.

Fast forward 163 years and the data from the Arab spring has been mapped on top of the data from 1848. The blue crosses show the countries that make up MENA. While there’s no clear correlation, the data suggests that countries where prices were relatively stable were much less likely to have undergone social unrest.

Note to tyrants: maintaining a supply of staple commodities is a superior survival strategy to taking down the internet.