The craziest part of the uprising in Egypt is how it caught us all by surprise. After all, it was predicted — three years ago. Unfortunately, nobody was paying attention. It sounded too weird. The warnings weren’t coming from political analysts, but from climate and crop experts. Which means — what? Climate topples dictator? No way, right?
Way. Let’s walk through it. Consider those warnings in the spring of 2008. It was a time of worldwide food shortages. Wheat prices had doubled from the year before, and other crops weren’t far behind. Hunger became critical, and riots exploded from Bangladesh to Yemen and points in between.
Some of the causes were economic: use of grains for biofuel instead of food, derivatives trading that raised prices artificially, free-market reforms that set food prices free to float. The biggest culprit, though, was a string of natural disasters hammering wheat production that year: unseasonable drought in southern Australia, torrential rains in India and more.
As food riots spread, the world press was filled with predictions of developing-world governments tumbling like dominoes. Most worrisome was Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer. Britain’s Guardian newspaper warned then that the shortages would bring down Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade rule sooner or later.
How soon? The first real clues appeared last fall. In September 2010, commodities traders began warning of a major wheat shortage this winter. The reasons were all weather-related. The Russian drought and wildfires in the summer of 2010 had halved the wheat crop and prompted a government ban on exports. An early frost in September had badly damaged crops in Canada and China. Prices were soaring.
The very next month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington issued an “Arctic Report Card,” painting an even darker picture. As the greenhouse effect thinned the ice caps, Arctic air temperatures were rising, driving polar winds south and east. The forecast for the winter of 2010-2011 was monster snowstorms throughout the Northeast and Midwest, and too little rain in the West. America’s Midwestern breadbasket could expect fields frozen solid, disrupted transportation and a poor winter wheat harvest.
Similar reports were coming from the Southern Hemisphere. In November, the Australian state of Queensland received the first of a biblical-scale series of floods; growers say 50% of Australia’s reduced wheat crop this year won’t be good for much besides livestock feed. Meanwhile, Argentina’s wheat-growing regions are dry.
On January 5, 2011, the crisis became official when the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported that food prices worldwide had risen to their highest levels ever. It said the situation was likely to get worse in the coming decades, as climate change continues. “We are entering a danger territory,” an FAO senior economist, Abdolreza Abbassian, told reporters.
Entering a danger territory? We were already in it. By the time the FAO report was released. Mohamed Bouazizi had been dead for 24 hours.
Bouazizi, a 26-year-old Tunisian with a computer science degree but no job, was selling fruits and vegetables from an unlicensed pushcart on December 17 when a police officer ticketed him and, for good measure, slapped him. Enraged, Bouazizi set himself on fire. His neighbors took to the streets in fury. Police opened fire, the protests spread across the country and by January 14 Tunisia’s president had fled the country. The rest is history.
Well, part history, part myth. When the rage first erupted, the reasons were transparent. Bouazizi’s compadres were chanting for jobs and food. Time magazine called it “Tunisia’s Hunger Revolution.”
After Bouazizi died on January 4, however, the protests turned political. Trade unions and opposition parties joined in. The dictator was defeated. This was catnip for the Western press. The protesters’ cause was transformed from food to democracy, and the protesters from beggars to icons. There was a happy ending.
This helps explain why the larger conflict in Egypt is so confusing to so many of us. When Tunisia’s dictator fled, Egyptians saw an opportunity and poured into the streets. But there was no movement, no leader, only the crowds. The intellectuals and dissenters tried to get their arms around it and are calling for democracy. The crowds won’t be happy, though, if democracy is all they get. You can’t eat a ballot.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).