The Middle East, traditionally a tinderbox awaiting a spark, is burning. In just the last two weeks, Tunisia’s youth, sparked by the self-immolation of a college-educated yet unemployed compatriot, have led marches and demonstrations that drove the Western-backed president to flee to Saudi Arabia. In Lebanon, the coalition government has crumbled and Hezbollah is poised to take over the nation’s governance, expanding their influence outside of the Occupied Territories. The “Palestinian Papers” have served a purpose not unlike the Wikileaks release of U.S. embassy cables: namely, using the veracity of a government’s own words to prove the lies being perpetrated on the public, and to show the duplicity of governments that claim to act for the benefit their own citizens. And mere hours ago, street protests erupted in Egypt, demanding the end of another U.S.-backed regime, that of Hosni Mubarak.
Most Americans couldn’t find Tunisia on a map if their life depended on it, so it is impossible for them to understand why the young generation is so convinced that regime-change is a viable solution to their problems. After all, we believe, Tunisia is another country on the long list of beneficiaries of U.S. foreign aid. Tunisians should accept without complaint that the same president has been in charge and has looted the country for over 22 years. And we in America can’t intelligently discuss any issues that concern Tunisia’s population. But Egypt is different. The U.S. has managed to successfully buy its support through trade and military sales second only to Israel in their scope and breadth. In return they have supported the (unsuccessful) U.S. efforts to negotiate peace in the Middle East, and even (reportedly) helped President G. W. Bush perpetrate rendition. Apparently, the Mubarak security apparatus is well acquainted with cutting-edge interrogation techniques.
So what are the issues that are driving Egyptians into the streets in protest? Why do they seek a regime change after 30 years? Why can’t Mubarak hand over power to his son, ala North Korea’s Kim Jong-il? Of course, there have always been a small number of meager protests on the streets of Cairo, over a variety of grievances. All have been brutally put down. But simmering beneath the surface have been several escalating issues of late:
- inflation in the economy, of about 10% annually
- a high amount of underemployment (an official unemployment rate of 10%, actual rate of near 20%, and a youth rate near 30%)
- rigged elections, casting widespread doubt on the legitimacy of the current government
- a loss of faith in government to solve the problems most people face
- a belief that government is owned by the Western elites; that it behaves as it is instructed to by the U.S. and stronger European nations
These protests appear to share similarities with the Iranian post-election protests of 2009, but they are expanding on that model in significant ways:
- the protests are being driven by middle class, educated, and connected citizens who previously have not protested in the streets.
- the leaders use connectivity and social media to mobilize and plan
- they reach out to the poor, offering to address their problems too
- existing (Islamic) religious structures are not supporting this, preferring to maintain the status quo, and making this a secular uprising that reaches across a wide spectrum of the community
- the U.S. reaction proves that our agenda is stability, not democracy
Here is your challenge: read through the list of the underlying causes of the Egyptian unrest, and substitute America for Egypt. Here’s what we find:
- inflation in the economy, of about 10% annually [Although U.S. government figures claim inflation is tamed, the formula for calculating inflation leaves out food and energy, and thus reports on price increases only on goods that fall into the category of discretionary spending. As food and energy prices rise, there is less discretionary income available for purchasing, keeping demand and therefore prices low on items in the formula, even as the cost of living rises.]
- a high amount of underemployment (an official unemployment rate of 10%, actual rate of near 20%, and a youth rate near 30%) [In the U.S., the official rate is 9.4%, underemployment admitted by the government is at 17%, and when you factor in the unemployed that the Labor Department calls Not In the Labor Force, you find that only 47% of working age adults have full-time employment.]
- rigged elections, casting widespread doubt on the legitimacy of the current government [While the Presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 are widely believed to have been stolen, the 2008 election was most certainly bought since 80% of all campaign contributions came from corporations, not voters.]
- a loss of faith in government to solve the problems most people face [The newly elected Republican majority in the House of Representatives continues to take sham votes on measures that will never pass the Senate, while at the same time refusing to propose any meaningful strategies to solve our problems. The chances that Congress can agree on how to solve our unemployment and deficit problems, which threaten to bankrupt the country or push us into still greater recession, are widely seen as bleak.]
- a belief that government is owned by the Western elites, that it behaves as it is instructed to by the U.S. and stronger European nations [In America, many feel that the government is owned by corporations, and that it behaves as instructed by these large, multi-national companies. These are the same companies that are making record profits by manufacturing and selling goods overseas, hence the rise in profitability, bonuses and stock valuations while job-creation remains non-existent, and then parking the profits offshore in order to avoid paying U.S. tax on the gains.
America also has a large pool of educated, connected youth who are angry that they are being burdened with the debts and pollution of their parents, and who see little chance that they will be able to take the reins of power as the older generations, having seen their retirement plans and pensions go up in the smoke of the 2008 stock market crash, continue to work and refuse to go quietly into the retirement home upon reaching age 65. How long will they wait? Will they, like the youth in Egypt are today, look to the inspiration of the courageous citizens who have decided enough is enough? Will they one day wake up and demand that business-as-usual end? Will that day come soon enough to save us?