Friday, January 28, 2011

Unrest: Not Food Riots

Several people posted, and I reposted, that even though the FAO's food price index has reached its old peak, there was very little food-related unrest and explaining why that might be. Some commenters believed we spoke too soon as riots broke out in Tunisia just about that time. They have since spread to several other  countries. Are we getting ready for a new wave of food price riots?

I don't believe so. My primary evidence is that the protesters themselves aren't talking about food and the newscasters aren't talking about food and commentators from those countries aren't talking about food and ... it's just hard to blame food when it seems to be missing from the conversation. Instead, they are about economics (food prices are part of that, but jobs are mentioned more than food) and politics:

Tunisia -- From an interview with a Tunisian (WR)
"So initially, it was a youth movement for economic reform and the creation of jobs... However, this was ultimately the straw that broke the camel's back. ...
A few days before Ben Ali left the country was declared under a state of emergency, which is when the army was obliged to intervene. Ben Ali asked for the support of the army to help quell the riots, and even gave the orders to open fire into the crowds to accomplish this end. General Ammar, to whom we will be eternally grateful, didn’t agree with this order ... ."
The interview provides detailed information on the difference between the Presidential Police (160k strong, portrayed as hired goons) and the army (30k and hailed as being on the citizens' side). I had reported earlier that there seemed to just be general 'anti-government' sentiment and it didn't matter who was in charge. I was unsurpisingly wrong:
Although Ben Ali and most of his family left the country, the old regime is still present in the current “Coalition Government”, formed by long-serving Prime Minister, Mohamed Ganouchi. When he first announced the members of the new government on January 17, many Tunisians were distressed to learn that major ministerial positions ... are still being held by ... Ben Ali’s men. In order for things to improve, we expect to see the ruling party members tried for their crimes.
Texas-in-Africa is surprised that the revolution is occurring in one of the most education Arab states. The interview at Wronging Rights cited that there too few jobs for the education youth as one of the problems.

Egypt's unrest appears for now to be much more short-lived and less effective than Tunisia's, and again there is very little mention of food prices or being upset that the government's wheat subsidies weren't generous enough: "A loose coalition of more than a dozen small parties and activist groups had issued a Facebook call for a “day of rage” to coincide with Police Day on January 25th, recently declared a national holiday." This video discusses the possibility of further riots today, all of it politics without a thought of food prices being responsible. Yemen appears quite similar in this regard.

Here is another fascinating post on the game theory of riots. When the government cuts off private communication, it may actually make revolt more likely:
The inference therefore, when you are in your home and you can’t call your friends and the internet is shut down is that the protest has a real chance of being effective.  The signal you get from this act by the regime substitutes for the positive signal you would have gotten had they not acted. The other reason is that this signal is public.  Everyone knows that everyone knows ...
Kuwait is, by one interpretation, staving off revolt in a celebratory manner by giving all citizens (remember: 2/3 of the Kuwaiti workforce is not Kuwaiti) $3600 and providing free rice, eggs, and milk coupons until March 2012. 50 years of independence, 20 years since the ousting of Sadam, and 5th year of the government's rule. Some of the more entertaining of MR's comments:
1 - Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah, or as he is known in the inner circle, Helicopter Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah.
2 - When the rulers keep the oil money, we see something sinister. When the rulers share the oil money, we see something sinister.

2b - When the government raises taxes, I see something sinister. When government turns around and belches per-head cash, I see something sinister.
Other commenters are much less convinced that Kuwait has anything to do with Tunisia and give some compelling reasons for their belief. Not the least of those reasons is that Kuwait has a long history of sharing the oil wealth and any public discontent is that the state is moving too far towards personal liberty rather than away from it.

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