The Egyptian Evolution

American diplomatic ignorance never ceases to amaze me.  I swear, they’ve been taking stupid pills in Washington ever since Teddy Roosevelt was tiptoeing through the White House, twirling a Louisville Slugger.  This current crop of dunderheads has decided that the world is one big pizza delivery: if they don’t get results in 30 minutes or less, they want their money back.  Egypt has been around for 5,000 years, Barack, for God’s sake!  Have a little patience.  And while you’re at it, you might want to quit watching CNN and find somebody who knows what they’re doing — like — say — maybe – an Egyptian!

The situation in Egypt is so fluid right now nobody knows what’s going on, least of all the U.S. State Department.  But let me tell you what it’s not.

First of all, it’s not a domino.  The regime in Egypt is not going to collapse just because the people of Tunisia chased President Ben Ali out of office.  Egypt and Tunisia are two different countries.  I’m not going to bore you with the figures, but here are a few facts.   Compared to Tunisia, Egypt is huge.  To put it into perspective, there are just about twice as many people in Metro Cairo as there are in all of Tunisia.  Furthermore, the Tunisians are relatively wealthy and better educated then their Egyptian neighbours (20% of Egyptians live below the poverty line, versus just 3.8% of Tunisians.)  And, finally, just in case nobody noticed, Tunisia is full of Arabs, whereas Egypt — take a wild guess — is full of Egyptians.  They’re different.  Clinton can yip all she wants about the “perfect storm” in North Africa, but somebody in Virginia better tell her Moslems don’t all speak with a single voice.  They don’t even have the same accent.  There are 2,000 kilometres between Tunis and Cairo.  That’s about the same distance as Baltimore to Dallas with a guy by the name of Gaddafi in between.  C’mon, Hillary, use your head!

Secondly, Egypt isn’t some comic opera Moon over Parador principate and Hosni Mubarak is not a 1950s chrome and gold dictator with a funny hat.  This guy has been running the show at the Pyramids for 30 years; that’s longer than Anwar Sadat and Gamal Nasser combined.  He’s quietly done more to change Egyptian society than Muhammad Ali Pasha, the guy who started the whole thing.  Mubarak has taken Egypt from being a pariah in the Moslem world (because of the Israeli peace treaty) to being the leading spokesperson for Arab affairs.  And that’s without any significant reserves of oil; Egypt isn’t even a member of OPEC!  The Egyptian economy is ranked 27th in the world.  That’s larger than those of half the nations in the European Union.  This is a large complex society, with an emerging infrastructure and a burgeoning middle class.  It isn’t Junta-of-the-Week material.

Thirdly, there is no legitimate liberal opposition in Egypt.  Nobody stays in power for 30 years without somebody getting the thumbscrews along the way.  Over the years, Mubarak has put the dick back in dictator more than once and the jackboots to pretty much anybody who opposed him.  This has created a political void.  His NDP party clearly runs every segment of society, and there’s no other group significantly trained to handle things.  Nor is there a single populist movement – except one – The Moslem Brotherhood.  These boys are the moderate end of the fundamentalist Islamic revolution.  During his rule, Mubarak has both banned and tolerated the Brotherhood for the simple reason that he can’t get rid of them.  They also do good work in the poor areas of the country, like running schools, hospitals and charities.  The problem is that they want to turn away from secular Egypt, take a page out of Iran’s history book and build an Islamic Republic on the Nile.  And they’re not shy about using force either; rumour has it that they were the ones who helped pull the trigger on Anwar Sadat in 1981.

Unfortunately, any shift in power will have to include The Moslem Brotherhood.

Finally, despite the ramblings of CNN, the Egyptian people are more concerned about bread than ballots.  They see reform as jobs and food prices first — and votes second.  For the average Egyptian stability is the avenue to democracy, not the other way around.  They are mad at Mubarak, and rightly so.  They want him out yesterday because they blame him and his son for shifting the Egyptian economy toward heavy hitter capitalism and away from the national subsidy programs they’ve always had.  The recent worldwide recession has hurt Egypt badly.  The blunt edge of it fell on those people gathered in Tahrir Square.  They might be talking about constitutional change and democratic reform but their major concern is not political liberty: it’s economic stability.  These are two different things that should not be confused.  They want Mubarak out so they can go back to work and feed their families.  A prolonged summer of political upheaval is only going to make them angrier.

Mubarak has got to hit the road — the sooner the better.  After all, he’s coming up 83, and in our family, we don’t even let the grandpas work the TV remote control anymore.  The problem is at this point there is nothing there to take his place. And an electoral free-for-all would throw Egypt into chaos.  Nobody wants that.  Meanwhile, if the United States continues to exert random on-again-off-again pressure on an already fragile situation, they could destroy a perfect opportunity to further the cause of democracy.  Americans have always made a science of misreading foreign content.  Blinded by their love of liberty, they can’t always see past it.  They are notorious for beating people over the head with a ballot box and then packing their bags and going home. What Egypt needs from the United States right now, is a simple, straightforward message of support for an orderly transfer of power.  And America?  You’re a Superpower – act like it!

Tunisia: Part II — The Canadian Connection

There’s always been a lot of talk about how one person can make a difference, how one lonely effort can change people’s minds and how one unrelenting optimist can push the world forward and make it a better place.  I believe this.  But, like most people, I still have to do the dishes and take the garbage out, so my unrelenting optimism is tempered by the need to scrape the scrambled eggs out of the pan.  However, sometimes the stars align, the breeze blows sweet and the gods smile on us.  It isn’t every day a person gets to change the world, but here we are.  It’s a bored Wednesday in January, a million degrees below zero outside, and daytime TV sucks.  So what the hell, eh?

On Monday, in Tunisia, the military guaranteed they would maintain order in the country so the Jasmine Revolution could succeed.  The teachers and the police went on strike.  A mass of people from the south came to the capital, Tunis, to defy the curfew and set up shop until somebody starts listening to them.  The demonstrations continue and the interim government has promised to step down after they hold free elections.  For the people of Tunisia, their country is in flux, but they are beginning to imagine a better world.

Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to help them.

Go find a Tunisian.  It’s not that hard; they’re all over the place.  A big part of the Jasmine Revolution is being propelled by Facebook and Twitter.  That’s a good place to start.  There are also websites and blogs that have e-mail and comments.  And God only knows what other MySpace/Yahoo/Foursquare combinations are out there.  Use your imagination!

Take a look and see who these people are.  I guarantee you that they are not the crazy Arabs that CNN, Fox and CBC have been force feeding us for last 10 years.  These are ordinary people, just like you.  And here’s the shock: they don’t know very much about North America because they’ve been getting their information from CNN and Al Jazeera.

So you need to let them know who we are; it’s important.  You need to tell them that it’s impossible to find a decent pair of cheap jeans in this country.  You need to ask for a recipe for the stuff they put in a tagine and find out why it tastes so different from everything else in the world.  You need to explain that Starbucks is good but Horton’s is better (or vice versa.)  You need to ask them if rap music sounds just as bad in Arabic as it does in English.

In short, you need to make friends.  You need explain your ulterior motives too.  After all, you didn’t just wander by.  And, to coin a phrase, just because people don’t have running water doesn’t mean they’re stupid.  This isn’t a time for politics or religion.  The Tunisians can take care of that themselves, but they need to know why you’re there.  They need to know you’ve come to support what they’re trying to do.  And that you like democracy, faults and all, and you want them to have some, because, at the end of the day, democracies don’t fight with each other any more than friends do.  You need to do all this so you can change the world.

Right now, there are bad people coming to Tunisia.  They’re wearing out ponies trying to get there.   They’re coming for the free elections, and they’re coming to take over the Jasmine Revolution.  They want power and they will do anything — and say anything — to get it.  Given recent history, it won’t be a big leap for them to make us out to be the enemy, and this will help them in their attempt to seize power.  However, they won’t be able to do that if you get there first.

It’s just human nature to distrust what you don’t understand.  However, it’s hard to dislike a person you just shared a recipe with.  It’s hard to hate somebody you call by their first name.  It’s difficult to believe someone is evil when they have the same problems and concerns as you do.  And it’s impossible to build an enemy out of someone who plays the same games and laughs at the same jokes.  Hillary Clinton and Peter MacKay aren’t going to do these things; they’re going to try and buy their way in — just like they always do.  But if you take the time to show the Tunisians just how much we have in common, they might realize who their friends are.  And they might have a chance at democracy.

Tunisia is the epicentre of change in North Africa because all the good bits have come together at the same time.  It’s small in size and population: ideas and people can travel quickly.  It has a relatively young and well-educated population: its people have been exposed to new ideas and are young enough to accept them.  It has a fairly big middle class: Marx, Engels and Mao were wrong: revolutions aren’t made by poor people; they’re made by the middle class.

Most importantly, Tunisia exists in the 21st century, and its people are open to the ideas of the world.  With any luck at all, there are going to be free elections in Tunisia.  For the first time, the people of an entirely Moslem country have overthrown a dictator and are going to have a crack at deciding their own destiny.  If it works, there could be others, and if we help them, it just might work.  So, maybe, somewhere between the dishes and taking out the garbage, you might want to give them a hand.  Who knows?  You might just change the world.

Tunisia: Part I — The End of the Beginning

Just in case you missed it, Mohamed Bouazizi is dead.  He died on January 4th, 2011.  He was buried, where he lived, in a little village outside a place called Sidi Bouzid.  From all accounts, Sidi Bouzid is a neat little town, relatively poor but without the screaming poverty that inhabits most of Africa.  Likewise, Mohamed Bouazizi was an ordinary guy.  He was 26.  He’d been to school for a while (like everybody else) and was working away at life, selling vegetables.  Nothing special?   Just another guy?

On December 17th, 2010 Mohamed Bouazizi was selling his vegetables in Sidi Bouzid when the local police came along.  From here, the story is a little hazy because, at that point in time, Bouazizi still wasn’t noteworthy enough to merit much documentation.  I don’t know who did what to whom but basically the cops were tense because Bouazizi was selling veggies without a permit.  Apparently, they confiscated or destroyed his produce and gave him more than a couple of whacks for his trouble.  Selling vegetables may or may not be illegal in Sidi Bouzid, permits notwithstanding; I don’t know.  That’s not really important anymore anyway because, later that day, Bouazizi got himself a couple of litres of gasoline, went to the steps of the government office, poured the gas over his head and lit a match.  As protests go, this was a good one.  And, as they say, the rest is history.

If you’re still confused, Sidi Bouzid is in Tunisia, and Bouazizi’s protest is what started the whole mess over there.  The situation has fallen out of the news cycle recently, but the analysis and discussion is still all over the Net — if you want to dig around a bit.  If not, here’s the discount version of what’s happening.  Tunisia is a little country in North Africa, economically divided into the relatively affluent north and the relatively poor south.  Since it became independent from France, in 1956, Tunisia has had only 2 rulers.  Both governed with varying degrees of success and oppression.  Compared to other parts of the Moslem world, Tunisia is stable and has strong ties with Europe.  It has a well-educated population and rising standard of living.  All of this is much more evident in the north than the south.

 Within that framework, on December 18th, the people in Sidi Bouzid held a protest against the government and the treatment of Bouazizi.  As word spread so did the protests.  On December 24th, the police shot a protester, and all hell broke loose.  The peaceful demonstrations became full-blown riots, and the police responded with more bullets.  By the 28th, the unrest had reached the capital, Tunis, and the entire country was boiling over.  President Ben Ali made several attempts to control the situation but no amount of band-aids could cover the wounds that were opening up.  In the first two weeks of January, 78 people were officially shot (and probably a whole bunch more unofficially) but even this heavy hand couldn’t slow the upheaval.  On January 14th, Ben Ali dissolved the government.  He took the first plane to Saudi Arabia — with his family and, as is customary in these situations, likely enough cash to see them through the winter and beyond.

Today, the interim government is trying to hold the country together, long enough to have elections, and the people of Tunisia are still in the streets.  According to their constitution, elections must be held within 60 days.

Tunisia is a long way away from here.  It’s little.  It doesn’t have a very big voice in the affairs of the world.  However, right now, Tunisia is probably one of the most important places on the planet.  The people there are in the streets, looking for a better life for themselves and their children.  But there is a lot more at stake than that.  What happens in Tunisia in the next couple of months is going to have a profound effect, not only on the world as we know it, but on world history itself.  And believe it or don’t, the course of that history may well depend on what you do in the next couple of weeks.  Ordinary people are going to decide what happens in Tunisia — ordinary people like Mohamed Bouazizi and ordinary people like you, if you’re willing to give it a try.

Wednesday:  Tunisia and Canada: A Clear Connection