The wave of popular uprisings in the Middle East in the past few weeks have raised many questions: What role does culture play? How does the participation of women contribute to their success? How vital of a role has social media played? Central for me is, how much of these protests are really about “small d” democracy? I’ve found the way that these uprisings have been portrayed in the American media curious, though not surprising. Americans, like most human beings, tend to experience and process events through their own cultural filters and contexts. As such, many Americans have identified parallels between the Egyptian uprising that culminated on February 11th and the popular uprising that started the American Revolution. Foremost among these parallels is that both uprisings were about democracy – which, in our American mind’s eye, stands for universal suffrage, individual freedoms, free elections, equal rights, and an independent constitution.
Some have argued that the Tiananmen Square uprising was “… really against growing corruption that was becoming increasingly evident ten years after China introduced market reforms”, because the more collectivist Chinese don’t necessarily feel comfortable with the same kind of democracy that America promotes. In China, preserving the harmony of the group is generally accepted as being more important than making sure that every voice is heard. To be sure, some students were certainly advocating for what we might call “democratic” reforms, but it might be a stretch to say that they were dreaming of a free-market economy, federal/republic governmental divisions, and a highly permissive attitude towards individual expression.
Save Iran, most of the countries experiencing unrest these days have enjoyed financial and military support from the US government, including Mubarak’s regime. Egypt was widely considered to be the US’s most stable ally in the region, in fact. So are we to believe that while the Egyptian people are rebelling against what they see as a tyrannical regime, their ultimate goal is to adopt the system of government of the nation that militarily support(ed) their recently deposed dictator? It’s possible… but to me, definitely not a foregone conclusion.
Global economic conditions are, to me, a more likely catalyst for the events unraveling in the Middle East region lately. The World Bank released statements this week on global food prices, stating that they were at “dangerous levels,” and had the potential to cause unrest all over the world. Crop failures due to weather conditions and natural disasters are mostly to blame for the high prices, though the creeping cost of oil and the petroleum derivatives used to make fertilizers are part of the root cause as well. These countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa also have a few things in common: up to 66% of their populations are under 30 years old, and official youth unemployment rates range from 9% to 24% though in some places the unemployment rate for those under 30 years old may approach 20%. Many of the people participating in the uprisings are said to be from the ranks of the unemployed, so rising food and fuel prices may have produced a tipping point.
So what’s really happening here? Are we looking at an American style revolution, where Egyptians, Tunisians, Algerians, Bharanians, and Iranians are hungry for individual liberty, or are the common people simply unable to afford the basic staples needed to sustain life? Or a mixture of both? What do you think?