For two days, people poured into the streets of Cairo, burning buses and trams, government buildings, and expensive cars. In Tahrir Square, troops fired tear gas at the demonstrators. Cairenes cheered from balconies and rooftops while their comrades in the streets below chanted antigovernment slogans: "You dress in the latest fashions," they roared at their president, "while we sleep 12 to a room!"
It was 1977, and revolution was in the air. When an already unpopular government tried to rescind food subsidies -- meaning massive price increases for staples like bread, rice, and cooking gas -- riots erupted. By the time they were over, hundreds of buildings were burned, 160 people were dead, and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had learned an essential lesson for the modern Arab dictator: let them eat bread. Lots of cheap bread.
Change is sweeping through the Middle East today, but one thing remains the same: the region once known as the Fertile Crescent is now the world's most dependent on imported grain. Of the top 20 wheat importers for 2010, almost half are Middle Eastern countries. The list reads like a playbook of toppled and teetering regimes: Egypt (1), Algeria (4), Iraq (7), Morocco (8), Yemen (13), Saudi Arabia (15), Libya (16), Tunisia (17).
For decades, many of these regimes relied on food subsidies to ensure stability -- a social contract so pervasive that the Tunisian scholar Larbi Sadiki described it as dimuqratiyyat al-khubz, or "democracy of bread." But over the past several years, grain prices reached record levels, and these appeasement policies lost their luster. In Tunisia, pro-democracy demonstrations began in late December 2010 with protesters brandishing baguettes. In just a few months, a wave of uprisings rippled across the region, toppling Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's longtime ruler, Hosni Mubarak.
The revolutions, of course, are about more than just bread. Middle Easterners want basic human rights, dignity, and a chance at a decent future -- good jobs at livable wages. But when a government puts those things out of reach for the majority of its