Like many other observers, I have been mesmerised by the events unfolding in Tunisia, Egypt and beyond. As a strong advocate of accountable, liberal democracy, it is especially gratifying to see the grass-roots nature of the unrest that has emerged so suddenly, and, it would seem, to the surprise of many. These revolutions and protests are neither politically nor religiously driven, but are rather the spontaneous response of a broad spectrum of the population expressing their discontent. What has made such a popular upwelling of outspokenness possible, in a region where politics have been dominated for so long by religious or political cliques?
These recent events themselves may seem sudden, yet the causes are firmly rooted in the longue durée. The discontent itself is nothing new; what is new is its widespread and open expression. There are several important factors in all this: access to information, the price and availability of food, low wages and unemployment. The impact of improved access to information cannot be underestimated via Mobile phones, Satellite TV, The Internet, Al-Jazeera, Facebook and Twitter in particular. As the spread of technology has progressed in the region, so has public awareness of the geopolitical context in which the Middle Eastern states have been so narrowly aligned. The people of the region have become cognisant of the complexities of global politics, their relative backwardness economically and socially, the scale of their problems compared to those in developed countries, their lack of political freedom, and also the misleadingly narrow nature of their own leaders’ rhetoric. Greater understanding of their internal situation has emerged in parallel with a more sophisticated understanding of life outside the region.
Al-Jazeera has arguably had the biggest impact in all this. An Arab voice and thus a trusted voice, the news network has been operating since 1996, providing a service that was practically non-existent in the region; open discussion of Middle Eastern affairs and politics. For a region dominated by monarchies, dictatorships and oligarchies, in which little real political debate has been allowed to take place, the cumulative effect of witnessing such open discussion from different political perspectives is only now coming to fruition.
We cannot underestimate the power of such a thing. During the June 2009 Iranian elections, televised debates were allowed between the presidential candidates, with each candidate facing the others once. The surprising openness of the political discussion has been cited as pivotal in mobilising the public’s willingness to take to the streets when it became clear in the aftermath of the election that there were many inconsistencies; that the elections had, in effect, been rigged. The open and often very frank, even libellous statements made during the debates inspired thousands of Iranians to discuss their situation more openly on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.
Socrates famously said that true wisdom is knowing you know nothing. In the Middle East now people at least know how much they don’t know. As they learn more and more about the reality of their situation, economically and politically, they will come increasingly to resent what has been held back from them for so long: the truth. This growing anger at having been duped for so long has now reached a tipping point. It is a remarkable tipping point; a 100% bona fide popular revolution over simple, basic everyday grievances; freedom, food and inequality.
Whilst access to information has spread awareness and discontent, and fuelled a great desire for change and reform, there is little question that the most important mobilising factor is food. The price of food globally has risen dramatically in the last five years. From 2006 onwards there has been a sharp spike in the cost of cereals in particular, driven by droughts and poor harvests in Canada, Australia and other significant grain-producers, and the increased demand for food from the growing Asian middle class. Another important factor has been the use of food-producing land for biofuels and other cash crops. The political consequences have been widespread. There have been riots in Bangladesh, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Haiti, India, Indonesia, Senegal, and Yemen to name a few. Many other countries have been forced to ban or reduce exports, and protests have been widespread, even in developed economies such as Italy where strikes and protests followed a 40% increase in the price of pasta in 2007.
The situation in Egypt was particularly dire. The riots in Mahalla in 2008 occurred after the price of food soared by 40%. The government was forced to hand out bonuses to workers, also protesting their low wages, and to massively subsidise the price of wheat, in effect, creating a sort of bread dole. The long queues to collect this vital ration often result in scuffles and occasional violence. The problem is further compounded when we consider the Egyptian dependence on bread. The country is the largest per capita consumer of bread in the world, largely owing to an inability to access or afford alternative foodstuffs. Each Egyptian consumes on average 400 grams of bread per day, which is nearly triple that of some developed nations, for example, France, which consumes on average 130g per day.
It has been said that any society is only three meals from revolution and anxiety over food is perhaps the most potent form of anxiety. The Middle East is a net importer of food and is not currently, nor will it be able to produce enough food to feed its populations. Eighteen out of twenty-two Arab states are classified as water poor by the United Nations. The population of the region is set to double by 2030. Where is the food going to come from? What will the consequences be when drought inevitably returns to Australia, when Canada’s harvest fails again, when a burning Russia again ceases all exports? What will happen when China and India have tapped the last of their aquifers? Even now China is gripped with a terrible drought – the impending need to import food will ensure further spikes in the price of food in the very near future. There is immense potential for further development of agricultural land in Africa, and improved agricultural methods, particularly water retention and the use of drought resistant, GM seeds will take up some of the slack in the future. But while food availability and affordability remain uncertain across the Middle East, no political or religious ideology, no secret police, no martial law will trump the popular demand for bread.
In the longer term there is little certainty that democracy will improve the lives of people in countries like Egypt, beyond giving them a better chance to make the bed they lie in. If a more open consumerist economy emerges, replete with a new middle class, this may only lead to further price increases and the more extreme marginalisation of the poor. One can only hope that, in a best case scenario, wealth distribution is conducted on a far more even footing than it has been in recent decades.
Another significant long term factor in the Middle East is unemployment, and especially youth unemployment. Throughout Africa and the Middle East, unemployment amongst 15-24 year olds averages 25%. In Egypt the figure is 34% whilst it Tunisia it is 31%. These are significant statistics in themselves, but when you consider that across the Middle East two thirds of the population is below the age of 25, the vast scale of the problem becomes truly apparent. In parallel with this development, educational opportunities have expanded significantly; tertiary enrolments in Egypt have double from 14% to 28% in the last twenty years. This means, in effect, that there is a huge cohort of young people, right across the Middle East, many of whom have university educations, but remain unemployed, whilst being aware of and connected to the sort employment and income opportunities throughout the developed world.
Rarely has there been a situation more ripe for potent popular revolution, and there isn’t much that can stop the process now it is underway. It will be several years before the full impact of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions are seen, but as protests increase in Iran, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Jordan, there is little question that popular political expression has gained an inexorable momentum. There will be pauses, disappointments and no doubt many tragic incidents, but right across the Middle East the people have at last begun to empower themselves. They know more than ever now, that for too long they have been held hostage by bullies. For too long they have been pawns in a game that positioned them on account of their attitude to Israel. Does a hungry Egyptian really care whether his government is for or against peace with Israel? For or against an independent Palestinian state? In many cases yes, but they have far more pressing priorities and these must be dealt with first. Their personal needs are far more urgent than the ideological, religious, strategic, or tactical prerogatives of their non-representative governments. The people are speaking and they will continue to speak and nothing and no one is going to stop them now.
Long live the revolution! Long live the people!