Food Governance

To assess political stability in Morocco, one must follow the bread path

Across West Asia and North Africa, bread is a symbol of wider demands for affordable living conditions and political participation.

When Egyptians were protesting in 2011, they held up pieces of bread and demanded “bread, freedom and social justice”. Since the 2007-2008 and 2010-2011 crises, rising prices of food, especially of staples such as bread, have repeatedly led ordinary people to protest across West Asia and North Africa.

Bread has also become a symbol of wider demands for affordable and just living conditions, as well as political participation in a region often marked by autocracy and paternalism.

While some governments collapsed, most notably that of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, others have remained in power, like the Moroccan constitutional monarchy. Morocco has seen protests, including the “20 February Movement”, which started in Rabat on February 20, 2011, with demands that King Mohamed VI relinquish some of his powers. But a constitutional reform later in the year has contributed to a relatively stable situation since then.

Political scientists, economists and international media have advanced valuable analyses and identified the main causes of the region’s tumults. Yet, the perspectives of ordinary citizens remain surprisingly uncharted. To explore in particular why urban poor Moroccans have not taken to the streets despite economic and political conditions similar to those of their neighbours, it is worth understanding bread not just as a symbol of discontent but also as an analytical tool.

Bread and the Moroccan state

As in neighbouring countries, bread has been central to political stability in Morocco for centuries. The monarchy and its political allies, often referred to as the makhzen (literally storage or granary), have positioned themselves as providers of food security: their political strength laid in storing cereals to face regular shortages caused by droughts or locusts.

Homemade bread baked in a public oven, Marrakesh. (Photo credit: Katharina Graf, author provided)
Homemade bread baked in a public oven, Marrakesh. (Photo credit: Katharina Graf, author provided)

In 1912, the French established a protectorate largely based on the myth of Morocco as the former “Granary of Rome”, and attempted to produce wheat for export to France. After independence in 1956, however, Morocco became an importer of wheat and has remained so.

Morocco’s population has tripled since then, and economic liberalisation promised employment and rising incomes. Nevertheless, youth unemployment and poverty remain high, especially in urban areas, where more than half of Moroccans now live. Despite the rising cost of food, the Moroccan government still controls wheat imports, production and prices. Bread, thus, remains a politically sensitive staple.

Understanding bread production

To understand why wheat production, distribution and consumption remain under government control and how this relates to Morocco’s relative political stability, I follow bread’s path, working backward from its consumption to its production. Thanks to a grant from the Axa Research Fund, this ethnographic research is taking me from the homes of poor Moroccans in the cities of Marrakesh and Beni Mellal, through bakeries and mills as well as urban and rural markets, and into the surrounding fields.

Cereal fields in Marrakesh’s hinterlands, the Haouz. (Photo credit: Katharina Graf, author provided)
Cereal fields in Marrakesh’s hinterlands, the Haouz. (Photo credit: Katharina Graf, author provided)

As I trace the trails of wheat grains and their transformation into flour and bread, I observe and participate in sourcing grains, milling them into flour and kneading bread. I also interview consumers, bakers, millers, vendors and farmers to connect cultural practices with broader economic and political processes.

Making bread, making Morocco

All the families I have worked with so far prefer homemade bread over commercially made bread. Although women, who are generally responsible for food preparation, are increasingly seeking education and wage work and have more money and less time to cook, they still try to make bread at home whenever possible.

“Homemade bread just has to be there for a Moroccan lunch,” I was repeatedly told. This bread is made with water, salt, a rising agent and usually two kinds of flour; one is sourced through rural relatives or from weekly markets in the form of grains and ground into wholemeal flour at home, whereas the other is bought as refined flour and is cheaper, thanks to governmental price controls.

Weekly cereal market in Beni Mellal. (Photo credit: Katharina Graf, author provided)
Weekly cereal market in Beni Mellal. (Photo credit: Katharina Graf, author provided)

While there are many reasons for using both kinds of flours, the practice of mixing reflects an overall appreciation of homemade food in the face of poverty and urbanisation.

Homemade food is referred to as beldi in Moroccan Arabic, which also refers to one’s hometown or region. Making bread allows the many recent migrants from the Haouz and the Tadla to hold on to their rural identity and, by doing so, to craft a place to belong in their rapidly growing new home.

At the same time, the government keeps industrially refined flour inexpensive through price caps. Many Moroccans, in particular the recently urbanised poor, mix this lower-quality flour with their preferred homemade flour to make it last longer. This practice allows them to hold on to their culinary and cultural practices and thereby contribute to shaping the Moroccan food system.

Breadmaking as an indicator of political stability

As far as there is evidence, other urban West Asian and North African societies seem to have largely given up making flour and bread at home. A case in point is Cairo, where balady bread (the Egyptian word for beldi) refers not to homemade but to subsidised, commercially made bread.

Making bread at home: a good indicator of political and social stability in North African countries. (Photo credit: Katharina Graf, author provided)
Making bread at home: a good indicator of political and social stability in North African countries. (Photo credit: Katharina Graf, author provided)

Taking the comparison a step further, one might venture to suggest that Egypt’s urban poor no longer contribute to making their staple food and, by extension, enjoyed less cultural, economic and political participation when they took to the streets in 2011.

By contrast, in making bread and thus upholding a central cultural value, Morocco’s recently urbanised poor actively contribute their part to the relative economic and political stability of their country. With global food prices expected to remain volatile in the future, the Moroccan government is thus increasingly put to the task of balancing economic reforms with the need for urban food security.

Created in 2007, the Axa Research Fund supports more than 500 projects around the world conducted by researchers from 51 countries.

Katharina Graf, Anthropologist, SOAS, University of London.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

What are racers made of?

Grit, strength and oodles of fearlessness.

Sportspersons are known for their superhuman discipline, single-minded determination and the will to overcome all obstacles. Biographies, films and documentaries have brought to the fore the behind-the-scenes reality of the sporting life. Being up at the crack of dawn, training without distraction, facing injuries with a brave face and recovering to fight for victory are scenes commonly associated with sportspersons.

Racers are no different. Behind their daredevilry lies the same history of dedication and discipline. Cornering on a sports bike or revving up sand dunes requires the utmost physical endurance, and racers invest heavily in it. It helps stave off fatigue and maintain alertness and reaction time. It also helps them get the most out of their racecraft - the entirety of a racer’s skill set, to which years of training are dedicated.

Racecraft begins with something as ‘simple’ as sitting on a racing bike; the correct stance is the key to control and manoeuvre the bike. Riding on a track – tarmac or dirt is a great deal different from riding on the streets. A momentary lapse of concentration can throw the rider into a career ending crash.

Physical skill and endurance apart, racers approach a race with the same analytical rigour as a student appearing in an exam. They conduct an extensive study of not just the track, but also everything around it - trees, marshal posts, tyre marks etc. It’s these reference points that help the racer make braking or turning decisions in the frenzy of a high-stakes competition.

The inevitability of a crash is a reality every racer lives with, and seeks to internalise this during their training. In the immediate aftermath of the crash, racers are trained to keep their eyes open to help the brain make crucial decisions to avoid collision with other racers or objects on the track. Racers that meet with accidents can be seen sliding across the track with their heads held up, in a bid to minimise injuries to the head.

But racecraft is, of course, only half the story. Racing as a profession continues to confound many, and racers have been traditionally misunderstood. Why would anyone want to pour their blood, sweat and tears into something so risky? Where do racers get the fearlessness to do laps at mind boggling speed or hurtle down a hill unassisted? What about the impact of high speeds on the body day after day, or the monotony of it all? Most importantly, why do racers race? The video below explores the question.


The video features racing champions from the stable of TVS Racing, the racing arm of TVS Motor Company, which recently completed 35 years of competitive racing in India. TVS Racing has competed in international rallies and races across some of the toughest terrains - Dakar, Desert Storm, India Baja, Merzouga Rally - and in innumerable national championships. Its design and engineering inputs over the years have also influenced TVS Motors’ fleet in India. You can read more about TVS Racing here.

This article has been produced by Scroll Brand Studio on behalf of TVS Racing and not by the Scroll editorial team.