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.
Ten years ago, Sudan was described in a Food and Agriculture Organization report as a potential “breadbasket of the world.” Hopes for the development of Sudan’s economy were running high at the time: the investment of Arab oil-generated revenues in Sudan’s agricultural sector seemed to hold immense promise. Vast quantities of hitherto unused arable land could be brought under cultivation. This would transform the Arab world from an area of food deficit into one of food surplus, laying the basis also for the development of extensive processing industries in Sudan.
On December 23, 2012, following a week of imposed scarcity, the Syrian town of Halfaya received 100 sacks of flour from an Islamic charity. The town’s main bakery started churning out bread, an all too infrequent occurrence since violence between the Asad regime and opposition forces escalated earlier that year. Hungry citizens began to queue.
“We should make it up to the peasants,” Muhsin al-Batran, erstwhile head of the economic affairs unit in Egypt’s Ministry of Agriculture, told the official daily al-Ahram two months after the toppling of Husni Mubarak in 2011. “Make it up” — why? And what is it that needs to be made up?
In the last week of August, after several false starts, a ceasefire finally halted the summertime slaughter in Gaza. Israel’s bombs stopped falling, Palestinians stopped dying and the world media stopped its round-the-clock coverage. And, just like that, Gaza was again yesterday’s news.
On the streets of Turkish cities, the cigarette packs being traded and tucked into shirt pockets are adorned with the familiar brand names of Philip Morris and British American Tobacco. The ubiquity of foreign brands is remarkable, for Turkey is the world’s leading producer of Oriental tobacco—the sun-cured, small-leaf variety that once filled nearly every cigarette on the planet.
The autumn olive harvest used to be a time of celebration in this West Bank village. Entire families would spend days together in the groves. Even Israelis would make special trips here at this time of year to buy our olive oil. But with new Israeli restrictions on access to the fields, Palestinian farmers now have to leave their families at home, and may never even get to their olive grove.
Today, picking olives is no celebration. In the past few weeks, Israeli bulldozers began clearing agricultural land that belongs to Jayyous residents in anticipation of building 50 new houses for Israeli settlers.
Ray Bush, Economic Crisis and the Politics of Reform in Egypt (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999).
Nicholas S. Hopkins and Kirsten Westergaard, eds. Directions of Change in Rural Egypt (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1998).
Marsha Pripstein Posusney, Labor and the State in Egypt: Workers, Unions and Economic Restructuring (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997).
Economic liberalization is now hitting the Egyptian countryside. After decades of Nasserist regulations favoring small land tenants, a new law will “reform” the relationship between landowners and tenants in favor of the first. It will more fully integrate the Egyptian countryside into the global market because it gives owners the right to dispose of their land as they see fit. These rights constitute a precondition for modernizing production methods in the countryside and planting more risky export crops. With agrobusinessmen able to invest and extract more income from the land, economists hope that Egypt will be able to decrease its annual agricultural deficit of $2.7 billion.
Victoria Bernal, Cultivating Workers: Peasants and Capitalism in a Sudanese Village (Columbia, 1991).
Jenny White, Money Makes Us Relatives: Women’s Labor in Urban Turkey (Texas, 1994).
Yahya Sadowski, Political Vegetables? Businessman and Bureaucrat in the Development of Egyptian Agriculture (Brookings, 1991).
The publication in 1988 of the fifth Egyptian agricultural census, conducted mostly in January 1982, provides the most accurate and comprehensive description to date of the changing patterns of landholding and ownership of agricultural assets over the 20 years following President Nasser’s land reform decrees of 1961.
The census establishes several trends:
Fantu Cheru is an economist from Ethiopia now teaching at the American University in Washington, DC. His book The Silent Revolution in Africa: Debt, Development and Democracy (Zed) won the World Hunger Media Award for 1989. Joe Stork spoke with him in Washington in the spring of 1990.
How would you characterize the present situation in Africa in terms of food, nourishment and productivity?
On October 5, 1988, fierce rioting broke out in Algeria’s capital, Algiers, and spread to many of the country’s other urban centers. The government proclaimed a “state of siege” and responses with heavy force. By the end of the week, when an uneasy calm had been restored, the dead numbered in the hundreds, with thousands wounded or in jail. 
As the Middle East enters the 1990s, the food situation cannot be easily captured in catch phrases like “dire emergency." Outside of the Horn of Africa, no country confronts wide-scale starvation, though poor people throughout the region face personal food emergencies daily.
Agricultural production continues to grow at a respectable rate — often better than the world average — in most of the region. Many countries have increased average daily calorie supply per person to levels equal to or better than the industrialized West. Where 22 percent of the population (35 million people) were undernourished in 1969-1970, this had dropped to 11 percent (26 million people) in 1983-1985, a ratio that compares favorably with other parts of the Third World.
Most discussion of the food crisis in Africa is a model in which subsistence economies remain essentially intact and food insecurity is a transitory phenomenon, the result of external factors such as drought or war which temporarily upset the normal balance between sufficiency and dearth. My experience suggests that in Sudan subsistence economies have all but disappeared. Food insecurity no longer defines one or another period but is a constant condition of the market economy that has come to dominate the country.
Gershon Shafir, Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 1882-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
Samir Radwan and Eddy Lee, Agrarian Change in Egypt, An Anatomy of Rural Poverty (London: Croom Helm, for the International Labor Organisation, 1986).
Alan Richards, ed., Food, States and Peasants, Analyses of the Agrarian Question in the Middle East (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1986).
These two books are welcome additions to the sparse literature on recent agricultural development and agrarian change in the Middle East. Neither makes easy reading, but students of both economic and social change in the Middle East (mainly Turkey and Egypt) and agrarian change in general will find them useful.