Lessons from Egypt

The Egyptian people have taken the first step towards transforming their society, and arguably the entire balance of power in the Middle East. Forcing their long-time ruler from power leaves a vacuum that may be filled with more of the same (or worse), or with a new structure that brings stability and respect to the lives of the poor and hungry masses. Once the youth, comprising two-thirds of the nation’s population and who have known no other ruler than Mubarak, lost their fear of the police and realized their numbers were too great to be shot down in the street, change was inevitable.

But the change they end up with may not be the change they want. If they continue to follow the rule of law, they face a daunting challenge: their Constitution, written to maintain Mubarak’s hold on power, limits who can run for President to a handful of people. Now that Mubarak has left office, elections must be held in 60 days, and it seems impossible for any group to form an effective electoral campaign from scratch in such limited time. We must leave wide open the door of possibility; we can hold our breath and trust that the energy that led millions into the streets, in utter defiance of power, will find a way to prevent a new iteration of the same old establishment from locking out change for the next, six-year term of any new President.

What are some lessons we can learn from their experience? Here are a few:

  • If we are to learn anything, we need good information. Pundits analyzing the Egyptian situation have repeatedly pointed to the use of technology and social media as the driving force behind the protests. Less discussed, yet more to the point, we should note the disaffection of the poor in Egypt. Although there have been food riots in over 60 countries in the past three years, those in Egypt in 2008 were the largest. In case you haven’t noticed, food prices around the globe have risen faster in the past 6 months than in recent memory. As more corn is diverted into ethanol production to lessen our need for gasoline; as the changing climate floods the rice crops in Thailand and Indonesia, or burns the wheat crops in Russia and China; as continued reliance on monoculture industrial farming depletes the soil of nutrients and produces increasingly bland and less nutritious food; as investment banks increase their purchases of commodity futures and hold those contracts, constraining supply and profiting by limiting the amount of food brought to market; and as global food production continues to focus on food products (concoctions made of sugar that bear little resemblance to actual food) as a way to foster profits from manufacturing rather than mere distribution; it should not surprise us that food costs more. When a mother has nothing to feed her children, when a father can’t provide food for his family, the desperation they feel drives them to take action, any kind of action, to end their hunger. Americans are not immune from hunger just because we are the most prosperous economy in the world; a record 46 million people rely on government assistance to eat today. As prices rise and unemployment continues, that number will only increase. As federal and state budget cuts restrict their assistance, so will their desperation. When will we reach our own point of “too hungry to abide business as usual”?
  • Unsustainable systems fail at unpredictable times. Who could have known that one man, by setting himself afire as an act of defiance and desperation, would foster a handful of copycats and within weeks bring down, so far, two long-standing corrupt regimes? Other populations appear to be emboldened by what has happened in Tunisia and Egypt; the natives are restless. I ask: what would it take for you to join a million-citizen march? Would it be hunger? Or possibly the death of a loved one, through war or lawlessness or greed? Could you wake up and protest before a curfew is instituted or your right to assemble is taken away “for national security”?
  • Transitions are easier and more effective when the new structures exist before the old is discarded. How are you building a lifestyle that can weather the coming storm? Are you storing food in the pantry? Starting to garden again? Moving your money into a locally-owned bank or credit union, and out of the bank that is [still] “too big to fail”? Buying your morning latte at the local coffee shop using fair-trade products and not the national chain? Do you have relationships with your neighbors that will help your community survive the end of cheap oil? Are you biking your short trips, and living close enough to work to walk? Do you live well above sea level, and above the hundred-year flood plain?
  • This is not about democracy. This is about corruption, high unemployment, a widening gap between the rich, corporate elite and the increasingly poor public, and rising food and fuel prices. Do you see any resemblance with America?
  • And lastly for today, where do you get your news? Why do you trust them? Do you understand that they have an agenda, and they only present information that serves that agenda? Do you taste other points of view during some part of your information gathering time? Are you secure enough to challenge your own assumptions by opening your mind to the hopes, experiences, and thoughts of others?


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