Swans Commentary » swans.com February 14, 2011  



Blips #104
 From The Martian Desk


by Gilles d'Aymery





"Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is in an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob, and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe."
—Frederick Douglass (1817-1895)

(Swans - February 14, 2011)   THE END OF AN ERA in 56 words? "In the name of God the merciful, the compassionate, citizens, during these very difficult circumstances Egypt is going through, President Hosni Mubarak has decided to step down from the office of president of the republic and has charged the high council of the armed forces to administer the affairs of the country. May God help everybody," announced the sober and stern Egyptian vice president. It took 23 days for Ben Ali to fall in Tunisia and only 18 for Mubarak. In both instances the military was instrumental in the process of removing the two autocrats -- by their refusal to shoot at and repress the peaceful insurgents. Why such a quick and swift outcome in Egypt -- an internal military coup, no less?

LET'S GIVE CREDIT to the youth, but let's also remember that these momentous events started with food riots. Yet the economic uprisings turned into a political upheaval. The youth of Tahrir ("Liberation") Square made little or no economic claims. In a commentary published in The Guardian on February 10, 2011, Ahmed Salah wrote: "This revolution is not for bread as much as for freedom. It was made principally by the educated, rather than the crushed poorer classes. And it is getting more and more popular as Egyptians balance values such as democracy, freedom, justice, dignity and transparency on one hand, and despotism, oppression, injustice, humiliation and corruption on the other." In a live BBC update of the same day (at 17:12 GMT) Firas Al-Atraqchi in Cairo tweeted: "Democracy! Liberty! Freedom of the Press! No Emergency Laws! Respect for Human Rights! These are the goals." Wael Ghonim, the presumably well-compensated marketing manager for Google in the Middle East and North Africa, who became a powerful organizer and a symbol of the uprising after having been jailed for 11 days, said that it was "the revolution of the youth of the Internet, which then became the revolution of the youth of Egypt. And now it's become the revolution of all of Egypt." It was the Al Jazeera Revolution sweeping across Egypt; that is, the revolt of the well to do -- doctors, professors, lawyers, and other professionals. They were chanting about political reforms, not socioeconomic changes. The regime expected that they would get tired eventually and that the financial losses to the country, estimated at about $300 million per day, were a bearable cost.

BUT THE CALCULUS began to evolve a few days ago when reports of increasingly widespread strikes surfaced. Factory workers, state and utilities employees, even some of the crews maintaining the Suez Canal started walking out in ever larger numbers. It was no longer about the disgruntled middle class or the loss of revenues generated by tourism and the financial sector. The masses were waking up and the entire Egyptian economic lifeline was being threatened. This shift back to economic demands has barely been reported in the US media, but it did occur. It was no longer just about Liberation Square, and the elites took notice. See what the insufferable Thomas Friedman wrote in The New York Times (Op-Ed, February 8, 2011). Keeping with the it's-all-about-democracy script ("[T]his uprising feels post-ideological,") Friedman did not waste time to ask, "[W]hose side is the army on?" And here were his hopes (this is worth quoting at some length):

The army could stick by Mubarak, whose only strategy seems to be to buy time and hope that the revolt splinters or peters out. Or the army could realize that what is happening in Tahrir Square is the wave of the future. And, therefore, if it wants to preserve the army's extensive privileges, it will force Mubarak to go on vacation and establish the army as the guarantor of a peaceful transition to democracy -- which would include forming a national unity cabinet that writes a new constitution and eventually holds new elections, once new parties have formed.

I hope it is the latter, and I hope President Obama is pressing the Egyptian Army in this direction -- as do many people here.

THE WISHES OF THE ELITES have been fulfilled. A military man has been replaced by a phalanx of military men -- the Higher Military Council (the military brass controls as much as 15 percent of the Egyptian economy). They may suspend or dissolve the parliament, keep the cabinet for a while, or appoint new figureheads and create a couple of committees to look into constitutional reforms and business corruption by a few selected scapegoats. They will eventually end the state of emergency, free political prisoners, and talk with representatives of the youth movement and the opposition. Hopefully, this transition will pave the way to a new "democratic" order in some undetermined future.

IN TUNISIA, four weeks after Ben Ali fled the country, a few people keep demanding that all politicians associated with the former regime of Ben Ali be removed from power, but it has not happened. Instead, the National Assembly and the Senate have voted to give the government of interim president Foued Mebazza and Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi the right to govern by executive decree in order to promulgate new laws regarding the amnesty of all political prisoners, the legalization and organization of political parties, the reform of the Constitution and the electoral code, and even the signature of international human rights laws. Apparently, the intention is to prepare for transparent legislative and presidential elections to take place in about six months. (Recall that a month ago, these elections were supposed to be held within 60 days...)

IN BOTH COUNTRIES, not a word is being pronounced about changes in socioeconomic conditions that would affect the economic power structure, the ownership of the means of production. This is an important point to note because Egypt and Tunisia share an important characteristic that has not been reported much in the media. Both countries engaged in a huge privatization of their assets beginning in the early 1990s, under the recommendations of the IMF and the World Bank. They were hailed as models of economic liberalism with impressive rates of growth for years. They were considered the only two countries in the Arab world that deserved to be included in the club of the "emerging countries." Economic systems that had been by and large state-controlled were almost entirely privatized. All sectors -- land, banks and insurance, real estate, industry, utilities -- were sold to the local, politically connected elites and to foreign investors for pennies on the dollar. During the same period these economies were redirected toward export markets, mostly the European Union, and became increasingly dependent on the importation of commodities (Egypt is the largest importer of wheat in the world). Fortunes were made by the few while unemployment and poverty shot up for the many.

WHEN THE GREAT RECESSION and the financial crisis hit in 2008, exports toward the EU and foreign investments dramatically decreased. The crisis was compounded by the spectacular increase in the prices of petroleum and essential food commodities triggered by financial speculation -- see "Food Commodities Speculation and Food Price Crises," by Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, September 2010 -- which led to food riots in more than 30 countries.

AS I REPORTED last month in my Blips #102, "according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the price of food staples ... has risen 36 percent in recent months. The FAO food price index, which was created in 1990, reached 223 points in December 2010, surpassing the peak of 213.5 points that occurred in June 2008..." One month later, in January 2011, the same food price index has increased another 3.4 percent to reach 231 points. The FAO indicates that these high prices will continue in the coming months. I wish that Ahmed Salah, who commented in The Guardian that "[T]his revolution is not for bread as much as for freedom," and all the "educated" advocates for freedom and democracy, could reflect on these series of facts. Can freedom and democracy bring food to the table, or as I read somewhere, "can you eat freedom and democracy"? (Can't eat Facebook, Twitter, and the Internet either...) In Tunisia, patience is running short as food is limited and expensive, protests have not subsided (234 dead and over 500 wounded as of early February), and thousands of migrants are fleeing poverty and swarming Italian shores.

OR FOR THAT MATTER, can a democracy create good jobs and low unemployment? Maybe Wael Ghonim and his educated friends could take a trip to Greece, or Spain, or Ireland, or even the U.S. to get some perspective. They may also want to ask whether a democratically elected government can share the country's wealth (or scarcity) more equitably. Here, it's worth it to take a little detour and visit the Gini coefficient (aka, Gini index), which is a measure, from 0 to 100, of the inequality of incomes in a country. The index would be equal to 0 if the distribution of incomes was 100 percent perfect, and 100 if it was 100 percent imperfect -- so the lower the coefficient, the more equality exists. One may be surprised to learn that according to the CIA World Factbook both Egypt and Tunisia have a lower Gini coefficient than that of the U.S. That is, the USA has greater inequality! So, democracy is not a necessary attribute to bring more equality.

INCIDENTALLY, another topic of much economic and ecological import for the future of Egypt was fully ignored by the protesters, the issue of water scarcity. In the summer of 2010 huge protests took place all over the country following drastic water shortages. According to the UN, 1,000 cubic meters per capita is the minimum a country needs before falling into water scarcity. The average per capita consumption last year was down to 700 cubic meters. Water deliveries are regularly cut for hours every day in poor neighborhoods. In some locations the price of drinking water is higher than the price of soda. Irrigated agricultural land suffers increased rationing. It is forecast that by 2025 the average per capita consumption will drop to below 400 cubic meters due to increased population and diminished availability of the overwhelming source of water, the Nile River, as the eight countries that share its bounty -- Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (soon to become nine when the Sudanese partition takes effect this coming July) -- are developing their own water projects and are increasingly contesting the 1929 and 1959 treaties that allocated almost all water from the Nile to Egypt. (Sorry, can't dig into this at this time and in this space. Do your due diligence with the help of your favorite search engine.)

FOOD, WATER, AND UNEMPLOYMENT are the biggest challenges the Egyptians face in the foreseeable future, and the "freedom and democracy" movement did not address them. Ben Ali and Mubarak embodied all the ills of Tunisia and Egypt. They are gone. However, the socioeconomic system of power and property remains in place. For these events to be called truly revolutionary these socioeconomic conditions must be fundamentally overhauled for the benefit of the entire population. Otherwise, in the wake of the current and well-deserved euphoria, one can expect much disappointment within the youth movement and renewed major riots.

 . . . . .

C'est la vie...

And so it goes...


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Published February 14, 2011