This photo of a
Egyptian Yemeni protester with bread taped to his head popped up on BoingBoing earlier today, where it has attracted a range of more or less amusing comments (sample: "When you are too poor to afford meat helmets then it really is time for revolution" and "Cat with bacon taped to it salutes this man").
But what is going on here? Perhaps it is a kind of decorative armor, with Viking-style horns and a circular badge in front, designed to inspire fear and awe in all who see it? Or is it instead a form of functional head protection? Bread certainly does have a useful shock-absorbing quality—as a former grocery bag packer, I can tell you it makes a great cushion for eggs.
The most compelling explanation, though, is that the protester is upset about high food prices. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported that its Food Price Index hit a record high last month, which analysts agree is one of the underlying causes of the wave of popular protests currently unfolding across the Middle East.
Although the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh enforces strict price controls, Yemen imports 82 percent of its wheat requirement, and was called out in a December World Bank report as "particularly vulnerable" to price spikes, as the country has "physical wheat reserve stocks equivalent to less than a month of its average monthly wheat consumption and limited fiscal space."
The same World Bank report also red-flagged the governments of Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon for their reliance on wheat imports and consumer price subsidies. Egypt was the breadbasket of the Roman Empire, but it now imports 60 percent of its wheat—and what's more, writing for Scientific American, David Biello notes that "Egyptians are among the world's largest consumers of bread."
Globally, wheat has been in short supply after Russia's disastrous 2010 harvest, drought in China, and floods in Australia. Meanwhile, Egypt lost half of its national wheat reserve last summer when it was found to be infested with insects. As a result, and despite government subsidies and a ration book program, Biello reports that the price of bread in Egypt has gone up 30 percent in the last year, meaning that Egyptians now spend more than 40 percent of their monthly income on food. Meanwhile, a 2010 report by the World Food Programme—based on data gathered before the current price spike—found that 31.5 percent of Yemenis are food insecure and a shocking 55.7 percent of Yemeni children are stunted due to malnutrition.
Clearly, the uprisings in Yemen, Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, and beyond spring from a mixture of causes, but as Evan Fraser notes in a recent Foreign Affairs article on the psychology of food riots, high food prices have historically acted as a catalyst for protests around a "public perception of injustice."
Perhaps our impassioned protester has found the most appropriate headgear possible: historically and politically appropriate, eye-catching, potentially protective, and, in a pinch, still edible.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the protester was Egyptian. Apologies for the mistake, and thanks to commenter "Toasters" for the correction.
Photo: Khaled Abdullah for Reuters, via BoingBoing.