A review of Habib Ayeb and Ray Bush, Food Insecurity and Revolution in the Middle East and North Africa: Agrarian Questions in Egypt and Tunisia (London: Anthem Press, 2019), 250 pp.
2010 and 2011 were initially heralded as a new age of urban activism, as ebullient crowds filled the squares and boulevards of Egyptian and Tunisian cities. Building on large strike waves in manufacturing and extractive centers, the language used to describe these events emphasized their mass urban character, with phrases like “the right to the city,” and the names of major city squares as shorthand for the protests themselves such as Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Initial histories of those years understandably, if myopically, focused on industrial unionism and mass urban mobilizations.
In the peripheries of the world-system, agrarian questions are central to development and democracy. This is as true of Arab countries like Egypt and Tunisia, wracked with poverty in their rural hinterlands, as anywhere else in the former Third World.
Cultural workers have only slowly returned to these cases of nation-wide rebellion and re-written such histories to center the experience of agrarian dislocation. In so doing, they have painted a fuller portrait of the class struggles waged by the victims of relentless primitive accumulation that both preceded and followed the highly mediatized events of 2010-2011.
Almost a decade after the 2011 uprisings, we now have an excellent synthetic text by Habib Ayeb and Ray Bush, long-time activists and researchers of (North) African agrarian questions as they relate to food sovereignty, social equality, and the ecology. Their book, Food Insecurity and Revolution in the Middle East and North Africa, covers the longue durée of rural and peasant life in the two countries, beginning with pre-colonial proto-dirigiste agrarian change and accumulation from above, colonial dislocation and destruction, and the brief interim of post-colonial modernization and state support of social reproduction. The authors bring us finally to the contemporary neoliberal period, marked by the reversal of national programs implemented to protect rural smallholders. The authors then describe the dynamics of peasant resistance to these reversals, as well as possible anti-systemic horizons for smallholders and the countries alike: the slow revolution yet to come.
The book’s theoretical toolkit includes Samir Amin’s theories of unequal exchange and accumulation on a world scale, South-North (or more formally, periphery-core) value flows, and notions of food sovereignty as they have manifested in local southern theory and practice, forming part of the international movement for food sovereignty and rural dignity.
Analytically, the book’s central novelty is to trace the agrarian question, or the social and political consequences of agrarian change and the role of the countryside in achieving social liberation, across space and time, and to re-read Tunisian and Egyptian agrarian history in an integrated and comparative frame. Such a juxtaposition brings out the stark difference between economic transformations under President Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt and Prime Minister Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia. The former enhanced the livelihoods of the fellahin as a social class through agrarian reform and weaving strong social safety nets. In contrast, Bourguiba and Ahmed Ben Salah (then-Minister of Planning) did not challenge existing distributions of land—dramatically limiting the scope of rural incorporation. (This was the case at least until 1969, when Ben Salah attempted to expand the cooperative program countrywide, and was deposed amidst discontent from small and large farmers alongside broad labor unrest). Smallholders often experienced the coop program as primitive accumulation, as they were “dispossessed of their land and their means of production to become poorly paid agricultural labourers” (106).
Ayeb and Bush’s account of the wrenching of rural life to fit into Ben Salah’s technocratic models shows how distant the state remained from everyday peasant life. Here we would have benefited from more description of the rural alternatives which briefly germinated in the soil of developmentalist ideology: For example, the ambiguous economic nationalism of Neo-Destour party leader Salah Ben Youssef, short-lived Minister of Agriculture’s Mustapha Filali’s call for a more radical ‘Land-to-the-Tiller’-style land redistribution scheme, and similar calls from the UGTT, all ultimately jettisoned in favor of the Neo-Destour’s World Bank-funded modernization/cooperative program.
Ayeb and Bush clearly and effectively describe the slow move from agrarian capitalism with some pro-peasant features to the savage retreat of the state in the late 1980s and early 1990s under pressure from the major international financial institutions (IFI’s) in Tunisia. They detail the aggressive conversion of the country’s agricultural lands into an enclave for fruit and vegetable exports to Europe, achieved through major domestic and foreign investment in irrigation fed by the country’s underground aquifers—draining Tunisia’s limited natural resources to ensure Europeans’ access to year-round produce. By highlighting the relationship between Tunisian production and export and the economic model the international financial institutions have encouraged, the authors bring southern questions of development—what to produce, how to feed your population good food, and how to provide decent rural and urban livelihoods—into the same frame with northern questions of agricultural consumption and trade.
IFI discourses of food security emphasize global trade and exchange of agricultural goods, which means poor countries finance the import of basic staples by exporting out of season commodities (berries, tomatoes) or uniquely southern ones (dates, pomegranates), to consumers in the global north. Such frameworks rely on the concept of comparative advantage to provide a patina of theoretical legitimacy to imperially-determined terms of trade that disadvantage Tunisian and Egyptian national accounts and prevent both countries from feeding themselves.
The idea that North Africans should rely on “more efficiently produced” EU and US cereals ignores the massive financial and ecological subsidies these core countries provide to their producers. In reality, comparative advantage, which may explain some North-North trading patterns, does not here apply, since the southern products cannot be grown in the north. The network of producer subsidies in the global north and IFI programs have led to a baffling situation: Tunisia and Egypt, with large rural populations, perpetually import more food in value terms than they export. Such asymmetric value flows are the calling card of a classic dependency relationship. A reference here to the works of Prabhat and Utsa Patnaik on price suppression for crops that cannot be grown in Europe would have strengthened their case, especially given the careful ethnographic-geographic detail with which they describe irrigated export agriculture. But the basic relationship is nicely outlined.
Ayeb and Bush are strongest when situating internal economic and social disarticulation and underdevelopment across space, as a prelude to their discussion of pre-uprising social struggles that swept through each country. Scholars of Tunisia will find a welcome update to existing cartographies of dispossession. We see how the “useless” Tunisia of the South, the Center-West, and the North-West remain socially but not economically excluded. Large sums of agricultural value flow out from the irrigated fields of Sidi Bouzid, but little value flows back. Parallel segments on Egypt show the brutality of the state’s US-backed neoliberal counter-revolution in the countryside, shredding the remaining legislation that protected the Egyptian fellahin. The authors show the sharp edge accompanying the dull compulsion of neoliberal market forces, as they depict state agents and landlords meting out violence to protect property and profit.
Alongside the account of class struggle, we find another vital contribution in their contextualizing treatment of Mohammed Bouazizi, who was in fact a dispossessed farmer unable to keep up with the loans to operate his family’s tiny parcel of land. Before the self-immolation and death that would make him a symbol of the uprisings, Bouazizi took part in a broader movement in summer 2010 involving “tens of local small farmers and peasants” (70) experiencing similar threats to their livelihood. Their dispossession was the prelude to semi-proletarianization, humiliation, and finally the spark that burnt down a political dictatorship. Rewriting that story is part of dismantling an ideological architecture which continues to relegate agrarian questions to oubliettes and dark corners, rather than making them central to the story of capital accumulation in Tunisia, Egypt and globally.
The reader would have benefited from tighter threads weaving together the theory of core-periphery development-underdevelopment to agrarian questions, not merely those of food, ecology, and land, but also of labor. It would have been useful to tie stories like Bouazizi’s more closely to the structural theories of Amin upon which they draw. In this case, permanent contingency drives down wages and therefore the size of the internal market in the periphery and is a feature of disarticulated accumulation, or accumulation in which internal sectors do not beneficially interact with one another. Disempowered local labor, in turn, reduces the power of labor on a global scale through maintaining permanent super reserve armies of labor in the periphery.
The role of a disarticulated periphery for accumulation on a world scale is also the missing link that enables us to understand the centrality of imperial warfare in the region. This is the topic of Chapter Two, which details the relationship between regional war and agrarian questions and the role played by regional structural adjustment programs. Ongoing war reduces the power of regional labor, prevents pro-peasant and pro-labor planning at the national level, and maintains or aggravates internal disarticulation. This ensures the maintenance of the regional status quo, including the petrodollar system that buttresses the core capitalist economies of the US and Europe as well as the financialized economies of the Gulf States.
Ayeb and Bush give us an account of specific histories as well as emancipatory possibilities. They diagnose the problem, then prescribe solutions. Their conclusion is a proposal—long-present in North African developmental thought—for a national project based on empowering rural labor and smallholders, valorizing peasant knowledge and practices, redistributing land, protecting nature, promoting genuine food sovereignty and achieving a “partial delinking” from imperialism (162). The book is a sterling intellectual contribution to an urgent political mission.
 Utsa Patnaik and Prabhat Patnaik, A Theory of Imperialism (Columbia University Press, 2016).