Revolution Is In the Air

Margaret Atkins MunroLet's Talk About MoneyLeave a Comment

The seed of revolution is political repression, its fertilizer, economic inequity.

Revolution is not a new phenomenon; it first came into existence when civilization divided itself into the political strata of rulers and subjects, freemen and slaves. The list of recorded insurrections is long, beginning in Sumer almost 4400 years ago and continuing to the present day. Some are the bedrock of history—American, French, Russian—and others are merely footnotes known only to scholars, such as Skanderbeg’s Rebellion in Albania in the 15th century.

Political upheaval is in the air—whether from Yemen, from Tunisia, or from Egypt, it is clear that the days of these dictatorial regimes are either over, or soon to be so. The world is watching and waiting, and other despots are taking notice.

The speed and spread of these rebellions is breathtaking; that they are happening at all comes as no surprise. It is one thing to be governed by a repressive regime whose hand is constantly out, whether sanctioned by law or not, grabbing at everything it can; it is quite another to starve, to watch your family go hungry, and to have no legally-sanctioned recourse.

The current crop bears all the signs of classic revolt in the French Revolution model: an economically deprived populace rises up against a largely out-of-touch dictator, who has enriched himself, his family and his friends at the expense of the masses. Political repression combined with full employment and plenty of affordable food might be tolerable, but the political tipping point comes quickly when tyranny is combined with an unstable economy, soaring unemployment and food scarcity.

The tipping point in Tunisia was the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vender, on December 17, 2010, after his unlicensed produce cart was destroyed by government officials. The successful overthrow of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 14th may have been the spark that set Egypt alight a mere eleven days later. Other leaders in the region are feeling the pressure: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has already promised political reform, and Jordanian King Abdullah II has replaced his government in response to protests. Whether this will be enough remains to be seen: currently, massive anti-government protesters in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, are clamoring for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his family. With demonstrators currently on the streets of Iran and Bahrain, the dominos are clearly tumbling.

The chaos in the Middle East is, of course, playing out half a world away from our comfortable democracy; these countries may not seem immediately relevant to us as we attempt to clear our driveways and keep our furnaces running. But we should be extremely concerned. While the fields in Egypt and Yemen only produce relatively minor quantities of oil, 4% of the total oil shipped in the world passes through the Egyptian-owned Suez Canal, including all U.S. imports from Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait. An unstable, or even worse, a hostile government in Cairo could potentially lead to increased tariffs on shipping through the canal, or outright refusal to allow the oil through at all. Creating artificial shortages of what currently represents 15% of U.S. oil imports would have catastrophic effects on our overall economy.

As much as we see ourselves as the only remaining superpower, the U.S. position as a power broker in the Middle East weakens incrementally each time a U.S.-supported dictator falls. In the case of Egypt, the U.S. dithered between propping up a long-term ally and supporting a nascent freedom movement. It is worth mentioning that the vast majority of the approximately $2 billion per year in foreign aid paid to Egypt over the last thirty years, together with other various funds, has apparently found its way into Hosni Mubarak’s pocket; the British Guardian newspaper estimates that Mubarak and his family are worth somewhere in the vicinity of $40-70 billion. Due to the longstanding U.S. support of the Mubarak regime, we will be nothing more than bystanders as the new Egypt attempts to form a democratic government with a corresponding constitution.

It would be easy to sit back and say that the new governments formed as a result of these revolutions will be immediately stable and democratic, as we understand those words. But we forget that our own revolution, now 235 years old, was based only on shaking off a repressive regime rather than addressing massive social inequities—we neglected to deal with our own social inequities until the Civil War and beyond. Today, in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and all other countries either in active revolt or just simmering, the underlying economic distress of a majority of the population requires cataclysmic change that will take years, if not decades, to accomplish. In these instances, we must be prepared for the interim period to more closely resemble the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution than the relatively benign period of the Articles of Confederation in United States history.