Fast Food Nation? Foreign Franchises in Libya
The fast-food void often noted by both diaspora Libyans and locals will soon be filled; several international chains, including Burger Fuel, are rumored to set up shop across Libya in the near future. The introduction of Dunkin’ Donuts, Johnny Rockets, and the like is certain to provide a recluse for homesick vacationers, but what else does this new market signify for Libya?
Though the primary concern of food chains in the Euro-American world tends to center on their unhealthy nature, the socio-economic affects of these restaurants are poised to be their most significant attribute (After all, high-fat and processed-grains already constitute a significant portion of the typical Libyan diet. The high rate of diabetes and cholesterol is a testament to the ubiquitous presence of fried, white flour foods: Isfins, iftat, and fatira are just a delicious few.)
Thus, the pointed questions posed by imperial alarmists (and some diaspora Libyan purists) should be examined first; Will Pizza House be replaced by joints with billion dollar (Western) corporations subsidizing up their success? Will McDonalds and Taco Bell dilute local cuisine at best, and encourage the (foreign) social dynamics that make them so successful in the West? Along with clothing brands and the slew of other western companies rushing to stake claim in Libya, aren’t these developments evidence of a neo-liberal agenda that will ultimately and permanently subvert Libyans into consumers of Western products?
The colonial coloring of all-things related to Libyan-Western interaction are indeed as dramatized as they appear. To quell these admittedly intuitive fears, we can examine the impact of fast food chains on other non-Western nations, while considering Libya’s unique cultural and economic context as well.
It is true that fast food developed alongside Euro-America’s social and economic situation. Fast-food expanded to meet the demands of a fast-paced, work-centric society. But though the most popular of these chains were born in the industrialized West, they have evolved far beyond the conditions which fostered their success. Chains ‘localize’ to the societies they service – we’ve all seen the compilations of chickpea patties in India and perhaps lusted over the McArabias available across the Middle East. Lonely Planet’s infographic illustrates that even the king of fast food – McDonald’s – adapts to local cultural and economic norms. Rather than subversively creating a particular kind of consumer, they satisfy demands in the pre-existing market. The contentious notion of corporate altruism is irrelevant to this strategy – the latter policy is simply a much easier and cheaper than inducing socio-economic revolution.
And how likely is – quite literally – a cheap imitation of local cuisine to eradicate local food joints? Not very. First, it’s important to consider that inexpensive, convenient food is already available in Libya. It’s tasty, and incredibly cheap. So cheap that the likelihood of foreign chains undercutting local prices is very near impossible. Secondly, we can conceive chains as an option alongside local food rather than an alternative. Throughout Asia, McDonald’s offers American-style burgers alongside Asian-inspired cuisine. But seaweed fries and grilled riceballs don’t render inexpensive, ‘authentic’ chinese cuisine comparatively inedible. One article explains the functions of Chinese McDonald’s as similar that of Chinese restaurants in the United States – that is, an “ethnic” food alongside a diverse set of options. McDonald’s doesn’t reign king just because it’s McDonald’s and non-Westerners trip over themselves to emulate every aspect of Western society – In much the same way that locals enjoy both their own and foreign cinemas (and often, prefer their own), the fast-food enterprise is not a zero-sum game. International chains simply service at the consumer’s preference. And the choice of a Big Mac over an eggs-hareesa-with-fries-in-the-center burger reflects no deeper phenomena than single diner’s choice at a particular moment in time.
A blogger in Egypt documented his own experiences with a McDonalds, which countered the notion of chains’ inherently competitive or monopolizing existence. He does ascribe McDonald’s a unique, slightly elevated position in Egyptian society because of its indulgent prices relative to Egyptian street food, and because their clean, large facilities appeal to poorer consumers celebrating special occasions. These characteristics render Egypt’s McDonalds’ an arena for consumption that differs from street-cart food or restaurant-grade cuisine, without unfairly eclipsing their value or appeal. Again, the diversity in options benefits, rather than limits, the consumer.
It is true that international chains are a mark of a globalized economy. But the greater presence of Libyans on the international world marked does not necessarily render them victims of a static economic structure; in fact, an international Libyan consumer is an empowered consumer. Citizens of the global economy have the ability to boycott international goods, and to effectively voice their opposition to corporate. The Israeli and Swiss boycotts are probably the most well known from the region. But Middle Easterners also boycotted Western fast-foods and junk foods after the 2003 Iraq invasion. The boycotts actually spurred local entrepreneurship, including ‘Hero Chips‘ in Palestine and Mecca Cola in Tunisia. Libyans can now participate in similar global discourse, or amplify their own voices, by easily directing and redirecting their purchases.
This is not to say that the arrival of fast food chains is an essential mark of Libya’s “development” or “modernization.” The presence or absence of these chains is only a function of the newly autonomous desires of Libyan citizens; chains are introduced with the partnership of Libyan businessmen and will be consumed by Libyans faced with the choices presented in a dynamic, internationalized market. Their success and their failure depends on the will of Libyan citizens, the calculations of Libyan businessmen, and the quality of customer service provided by its Libyan workers. This agency is the factor often missing from dreary neocolonial prophecies; the inability to conceive Libyans as more than unconscious recipients of external influence – even when that influence is a merely deep-fried goodness – represents the downfall of these theories. Will fast food chains introduce more labor rights abuses and problematic GMO food practices? Potentially. Do chain investments bring with them the same elitist barrier to entrepreneurship/business development that existed in the pre-Gaddafi era? Maybe. But these issues cannot be considered from a Euro-American centric perspective – cognizant Libyan citizens will constitute the determinative factor in the success, failure, and related after-affects of this global industry.
[Photo credits: Todd Huffman, Flickr; Jihad Nga]