The views and opinions expressed or implied in WBY are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.

Egypt’s Bread of Life: The Power of Food in Government

  • Published
  • By Capt. Eric N Dayhuff, USAF

In response to rioting peasants outside the palace demanding bread, French queen Marie-Antoinette was famously quoted as saying “let them eat cake.” Whether or not this is quote is historically accurate or not, it reflects a reality that has been with governments as long as they have existed: citizens need to eat. Looking deeper at the French Revolution, part of what had brought the people out in protest in the first place was a broken system of taxes, price ceilings, and subsidies on bread which created an artificial shortage and led to mass civil unrest.[1] In the modern era, globalized supply chains and trade agreements have created an even more complex system vulnerable to outside shocks. The war in Ukraine is one such shock that is impacting the international system, especially with key entities in the strategically vital region of the Eastern Mediterranean. In order to make intelligent policy with respect to regional security, policy makers must understand the centrality of food security to regional stability and the inner workings of key allies and partners. To this end, the US Department of Defense must integrate at a fundamental level with other agencies, such as Department of State and USAID, in order to advance US interests.

Food as a Tool

In 2011, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) produced a working paper which used empirical data to examine the effects of rising food prices on democracy and conflict. Using data from 120 countries between 1970 and 2007, the authors demonstrated that in low-income countries, food insecurity driven by rising prices reliably predicted increased levels of anti-government sentiment, a deterioration of democratic institutions, and civil conflict.[2] High-income countries did not see the same trend, possibly due to greater institutional resilience. Middle-income countries, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, represent a unique intersection of traits of both high and low-income countries. Many of these nations have stronger institutions which help insulate them from some of the problems seen in lower income countries. This strength is counter-balanced, however, by higher levels of dependence on foreign food imports to support fast-growing populations. This leads to governments needing to keep a steady hand on food policy as an instrument of national security and regime stability.

Food can be weaponized by a sitting government in order achieve a political end state. From 1932 to 1933, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin weaponized food in Ukraine as a way to consolidate control over the territory and eliminate threats from a rising sense of Ukrainian nationalism. In conjunction with other political measures, Stalin imposed strict grain procurement quotas which effectively moved food out of the country, which was then a part of the Soviet Union, and harshly punished anyone caught stealing. This led to the mass starvation of nearly 3.9 million Ukrainians despite Moscow having grain reserves able to feed more than 10 million readily available.[3] In a war starting in November 2020, forces acting under the government of Ethiopia disrupted critical agriculture activities and blocked international aid from reaching the embattled region of Tigray.[4] Due to their systematic and ethnically driven nature, these violent actions most likely constitute war crimes and have lead to the mass relocation of tens of thousands of Tigrayans to neighboring regions.[5] While this conflict is complex and both sides have committed atrocities and war crimes, it is impossible to move the peace process forward with an unstable food situation. Examples like this are not uncommon across history. A government able to exercise total control over a food supply can use that control to enforce its will on a population.

On the other hand, food insecurity can be a potent tool for the revolutionary. When food becomes more scarce or expensive it disproportionately impacts those already on the bottom rungs of the societal ladder. When combined with other policy or environmental factors, food insecurity can create the circumstances for regime change or push individuals into the arms of violent insurgencies.[6] From bread riots in ancient Rome to the French Revolution to modern Somalia and Ethiopia, a hungry population can quickly become the enemy of a government. Consider the Syrian Civil War that grew out of the Arab Spring. A sustained drought from 2007 to 2011 caused the population to shift into more urban areas seeking work and more affordable food. The failure of this work to materialize and steadily rising food prices were critical factors in sparking the mass demonstrations which precipitated the escalation to violent conflict.[7] Governments understand that in order to prevent revolution, they must provide a stable base for their citizens. In the growing complexity of a globalized food market, however, governments are now vulnerable to impacts to the supply chain well beyond their own borders.

The Global Supply Chain

Population growth and an increasing dependence on imports in some regions changes how conflict in any part of the world impacts the global market. The current war in Ukraine is particularly troubling as both Russia and Ukraine play a large role in the global food economy. Taken together, Ukraine and Russia combine to account for 12% of all calories traded in the world and 30% of all grain exports.[8] In March 2022, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reported that the Food Price Index had reached an all-time high due primarily to the loss of Ukrainian wheat exports in the conflict zone.[9] With sanctions from abroad and protectionist policies at home, Russian fertilizer exports have plummeted and have the potential to create shortages in other high agriculture export countries such as Brazil, India, and Peru.[10] While the global market will attempt to correct for these deficiencies and alternate sources may increase production, one must consider how many shocks a system can take before a catastrophe follows. Low-income countries are often the most visibly affected, however, case studies show that even middle-income countries can be effected as well.

The Case of Egypt

A good example of a middle-income country with food security concerns is Egypt. Egypt is one of the largest players in the eastern Mediterranean and is solidly classified in the lower-middle income range of nations.[11] What complicates policy decisions for the Egyptian government is the convergence of population and economic trends all centered around food security. A high fertility rate has created a larger and larger population, dramatically increasing the number of individuals who are looking for housing, necessitating further urbanization. This urbanization creates direct competition for land, water, and other resources needed for domestic agriculture which already lags behind domestic demand.[12] Unable to keep up with demand, Egypt is completely dependent on Russian and Ukrainian wheat, with imports from these two countries accounting for 85% of supply. This supply is used for a variety of purposes but it’s most important use is to make bread.

Bread is more than just food in Egypt, it is key factor for regime stability. The staple of the average Egyptian family is a traditional flatbread called eish baladi, so central to the Egyptian table it is typically translated as “bread of life”, which can be procured for mere pennies (around $0.03) on the street. This low price has less to do with the simplicity of the bread and more to do with heavy government subsidies which artificially depresses the price. Given that 88% of Egyptians depend on this subsidy in order to be able to afford food, it’s no wonder that any changes to the subsidy quickly become the source of anti-government sentiment. Violent protests broke out in 1977 when President Anwar Sadat announced price increases in an attempt to lower the national deficit.[13] After three days of riots which required the army to be called out to contain them, the new policies were reversed and the subsidies reinstated.[14] This problem resurfaced in 2008 and 2009 when surging global prices and poor government supply chain management led to large-scale protests across the country in a shadow of what was to come two years later. In 2011, a lower than expected Russian crop yield drove up food prices and threatened the subsidy program. This, combined with the social forces of the Arab Spring, led to the iconic protests which ended the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak.[15] These incidents and others across history seem to indicate that when the government in Cairo is unable to maintain food security for the average Egyptian, unrest and revolution shortly follow.

The current war in Ukraine threatens both Russian and Ukrainian exports of wheat and, therefore, threatens the long-term stability of Egypt. The government of Egypt is not yet in crisis. The country is on stable economic footing with minor GDP growth over the past few years and favorable loan conditions set by the IMF during the COVID pandemic which have provided an extra layer of economic security. Additionally, due to a fortuitous dip in wheat prices just before the conflict, Egyptian wheat reserves are sitting fat with around a 4-months supply.[16] However, maintaining the current bread subsidy program is expensive. Before the war, Cairo projected that this subsidy program would cost the government around $3 billion a year. Taking into account rising prices of not only wheat and other crops but the secondary cost increases due to oil disruptions and inflation, the eish baladi subsidy program could almost double in cost to around $5.7 billion in the next few years alone.[17] If Cairo sees the eish baladi subsidy program as a “must pay” bill to ensure stability, it could very quickly find itself locked into an increasingly expensive project that puts other government services at risk. In order to achieve long-term stability, Egypt must begin to look for policy options which create more flexibility for the government.

Policy Considerations for Egypt

Scholars and policy analysts have identified several options Cairo can pursue in order to start to build a more stable footing for the future. In order to answer immediate needs, Egypt should consider creating a policy which diversifies imports of wheat. By having multiple sources for imports, the Egyptian economy would be better situated to absorb a shock to any individual source country.[18] This can be difficult in practice, though, as there are often economic and geo-political incentives to purchase from specific countries. Additionally, increased purchases from domestic sources and extending an existing ban on exports could keep more crops local and answer immediate short-term needs. Protectionist policies such as these can be dangerous in the longer term and should only be adopted with a clear path away from them. In the longer term, Egypt should focus on safeguarding its existing crops against water shortages stemming from climate change and water politics with upriver neighbors such as Sudan and Ethiopia. A focus on developing sustainable domestic crops over creating short term surpluses would create a reliable baseline that Egyptian policy makers could use to shore up reserves against times of crisis. The government must move carefully here to balance the trade-offs made between the urbanization to house a growing population and the agriculture needed to feed it. Additionally, improving and expanding other subsidy programs that utilize other food sources could reduce the dependence on wheat and open space for reforms to make the the eish baladi subsidy more sustainable.[19] By enacting these reforms, Cairo can keep their population fed, improve their economy, and maintain domestic peace. Failing to do so could set conditions for humanitarian disaster, anti-government violence, and possibly even regime change. While it is true that a government can often remain in power through the threat of violence, this requires that the army stay loyal to the leadership. Widespread food insecurity creates new opportunities for challenges to the leader’s power from those within the power structure of the country, especially the military, as seen with President Mubarak’s ouster. Therefore, whether it’s a revolt of the common solider or an opportunistic senior general, a political leader in Egypt must realize that the very enforcers that protect the regime may turn also turn on it.

Opportunities for the US

If the US desires to be the partner of choice globally, it would do well to consider how food security can provide a point of entry with governments. In the case of Egypt, the US enjoys a long-term positive relationship with the government built on a history of billions of dollars in aid every year. That said, with an ever-increasing threat from China and tensions between allies Turkey and Greece, the US needs to ensure that it maintains strong allies and partners in the region to maintain stability. To this end, the State Department can look to augment policies being set forth by Cairo that move them towards self-sufficiency. Whether it’s funding providing short term relief in the form of exports or developing engineering support for irrigation projects along the Nile, the US should invest in the projects which will strengthen both the US-Egypt relationship and Egypt itself. A strong ally in Cairo provides the US with policy options in an increasingly competitive region of the world.

At a more macro level, given the impact that food security can have on regional security, closer ties need to be established between the Department of Defense (specifically the regional combatant commanders) and other government institutions like the State Department and USAID. Food security is a difficult issue because it is often associated with other major problem sets that cross organizational lines. Countries or regions where food security becomes problematic are often experiencing failures across their whole of government which necessitates a whole of government response from the US to support. However, US foreign policy often very Department of Defense-centric and therefore, kinetically focused. A panel of experts reviewing the outcomes of US counter-terror policy in Africa found that the Department of Defense was able to achieve only short-term tactical or operational success in the kinetic realm. These success’ came at the cost of forcing the Department of State and USAID into focusing on near term objectives and positions centered around supporting governments and militaries rather than building enduring institutions, despite the potential for these non-kinetic effects to delivery better long term outcomes.[20]  A more comprehensive focus on non-kinetic economic issues, specifically food security via State and USAID, paired with security actions from the DoD, has the potential to interdict the flow of individuals into extremist groups while providing real leverage on autocratic leaders or support to allies. In order to execute this, State and Defense officials must co-locate and work through developing regional strategy together. A mutually supporting plan of programs and exercises would put all of the best assets of each department into play and drive forward key programs in each region. Programs which answer needs as fundamental as food security garner mutual trust and support shared interests, creating lasting ties with governments and citizens. Over time these ties can become some of the best checks against the influence of the revisionist governments in Beijing, Teheran, and Moscow. This holistic approach to regional security is crucial to support partners and allies who help deter aggression and stay in the competition portion of the conflict spectrum.


Food security is a critical element of governing any nation. Whether it’s being utilized as a weapon or it’s the rallying cry for rebellion, no government can manage a nation without understanding how that nation will be fed. While it’s tempting to try and segment food security onto only the lowest income countries, the truth is that a more globalized economy has created dependencies all around the world. With instability around the world, global climate change, and any number of natural calamities, those dependencies could become the focal point of a regional crisis. By integrating Defense and State capabilities at both the response and the planning phase of regional strategy, the US will be able to answer critical food needs. Without this integration, the door is left open to other actors to seize the initiative and to remake the world as they see fit.

Captain Eric Dayhuff
Captain Dayhuff is an Air Force Cyberspace Operations Officer currently assigned as to Headquarters Pacific Air Forces A3/6 Directorate. He is a graduate of Marine Corps University’s Expeditionary Warfare School where he was selected for the Krulak Scholars program, focused on in-depth examination of strategic issues impacting the Eastern Mediterranean. Capt. Dayhuff has served in various operational and staff assignments including tours in the Joint Special Operations Command J6, the 8th Communications Squadron at Kunsan AB, ROK, and the 729th Air Control Squadron at Hill AFB Utah.



[1.] Karl Muth, “’Let Them Eat Cake’ Wasn’t Such a Bad Idea.” Global Policy Journal (blog), June 6, 2014,

[2.] Rabah Arezki and Markus Brückner, “Food Prices and Political Instability,” (working paper, International Monetary Fund Institute, 2011), 4-5.

[3.] University of Minnesota, College of Liberal Arts, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, “Holodomor”, accessed 6 March 2022,

[4.] Alex De Waal, “Tigray is starving, it is time for the UN to act,”, 4 November 2021,

[5.] Human Rights Watch, “Ethiopia: Crimes Against Humanity in Western Tigray Zone,” 6 April 2022,

[6.] Kelly McFarland and Alistair Somerville, “To Tackle Instability and Conflict, it’s Time to Elevate Hunger as a National Security Priority,” War On the Rocks, 15 November 2021,

[7.] Emmy Simmons, “Recurring Storms Food Insecurity, Political Instability, and Conflict,” (Washington DC: Global Food Security Project, Center for Strategic and International Studies, February 2017, 12-13,

[8.] Lisa Held “The Field Report: What the Invasion of Ukraine Means for the Food Supply,” March 9, 2022,

[9.] United Nations Social and Economic Development Task Force, Ukraine war drives international food prices to ‘new all-time high’ (New York: United Nations, 8 April 2022).

[10.] Gro-Intelligence, “Russia Bans Fertilizer Exports; Will Weigh on Brazil Corn Crop,” 4 February 2022,

[11.] World Bank, World Bank Country and Lending Groups (Washington DC: World Bank, 2022).

[12.] Hamdy Sayed Abdou Abdelaal and Dawn Thilmany, “Grains Production Prospects and Long Run Food Security in Egypt,” Sustainability 11, no. 16: 4457 (2019),

[13.] “Thousands In Egypt Riot Over Price Rise,” New York Times, 19 January, 1977,

[14.] “30 Years After Bread Riots, Egypt Reform Moves Forward.” Egypt Daily News, 21 January, 2007. =

[15.] Michaël Tanchum, “The Russia-Ukraine War has Turned Egypt's Food Crisis into an Existential Threat to the Economy” Middle East Institute, (Washington DC: Middle East Institute, March 3, 2022), 5,

[16.] Tanchum, “The Russia-Ukrain War”, 1.

[17.] Bryan Keogh, “Russia-Ukraine crisis poses a serious threat to Egypt – the world’s largest wheat importer”, March 17, 2022.

[18.] Keogh, “Russia-Ukraine crisis”.

[19.] Keogh, “Russia-Ukraine crisis”.

[20.] Jason Warner, Stephanie Lizzo, and Julia Broomer, “Assessing U.S. Counterterrorism in Africa, 2001-2021: Summary Document of CTC’s Africa Regional Workshop,” in Combating Terrorism Center Conference (New York, Oct 2021), 7,


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