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Why Now?

Tunisia, Then Egypt

by LAWRENCE DAVIDSON

If the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt tell us anything it is that predicting the beginning of mass unrest is very difficult. Indeed, it is probably easier to predict the stock market. What one can do, however, is describe conditions that are likely to create a context conducive to such unrest. What might those be?

First and foremost are poor economic conditions that are believed unnecessary by a suffering population. In our day and age this condition is easy to meet. There are many areas of the world where economies are stagnant, held hostage by international organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, unable to feed usually growing populations, and most importantly, unable to employ a growing percentage of their adult population, including highly educated middle class individuals. And, in age of worldwide instant communication, no one really believes that such conditions are the way things have to be. Muhammad Bouazizi, the young man who, through an act of self-immolation, sparked the revolt that brought down Tunisia’s dictator, was responding to years of economic frustration.

Police and/or military repression is the second condition that increases the probability, at least in the long run, of resistance and revolt. In a country where unemployment is high, the army and the police become primary employers. But, those so employed are separated out from the rest of the population as an arm of a government that is unpopular. They often act with impunity. That is they are above the law and not its servants. If their salaries are sub-standard or they are not well supervised the police may well turn criminal. And their usual crime is extortion. Muhammad Bouazizi committed suicide after police took away his only source of living. They confiscated his street stall in part because he could not afford to pay off those in authority.

Thus, rampant corruption is a third ingredient often found in societies that are vulnerable to popular revolution. When questioned about employment possibilities, a young man from Bouazizi’s town, Sidi Bouzid, responded, “Why don’t I have a job? Because I would have to pay people connected to the president’s family to receive one. They take everything from us, and give us nothing.”

Egypt too reflects this mix, though in different ways than does Tunisia. In Egypt unemployment is very high, particularly among the young and college graduates. Having a highly educated labor force that is chronically unemployed or under employed is always a dangerous mix. Repression is also high in what amounts to a police state with rigged elections and torture chambers in the basements of local jails. Corruption is pervasive in Egypt. Everyone knows that those close to the dictator control the economy. You want something done, you have to cut them in.

While the three conditions listed above might be necessary to the eventual outbreak of mass unrest, at least in the non-Western world, they are not sufficient. Zine Ben Ali was Tunisia’s dictator for 23 years. Hosni Mubarak has “led” Egypt for 30 years. Conditions in both countries have been ripe for a popular uprising for much of that time. So what is the missing ingredient? It is probably not one thing, but rather a chain of things. Here is the surmise put forth by my wife, the anthropologist Janet Amighi:

A. The default positions among the population of these dictatorships are fear and passivity.

B. Then something particularly outrageous (Bouaziz’s public suicide) or inspiring (successful revolt in Tunisia) occurs.

C. This event is enough to overcome the fear and passivity of a small number of people who publically protest.

D. For whatever reason they are not immediately suppressed and this encourages others to take the chance of coming into the streets.

E. At this point the authorities have a choice. You either come down very hard on the protestors, which usually includes shooting many of them down, or you positively respond to their demands. Or sometimes the authorities are so stunned and uncertain they just do nothing. In 1989 in China the government choose to shoot the people in Tianamen Square. In Tunisia and also in Iran of the Shah, and now in Egypt too, the government hesitated or, as seems likely in the case of Tunisia, the army refused to shoot down the citizenry.

F. Whatever the reason, hesitation on the part of the government that goes on long enough changes the default norms. Passivity and fear ebb and all the discontent and hatred that has built up over the decades comes pouring out. At that point the days of most dictatorial regimes are numbered.

For a very long time now the U.S. has put its money on the dictators. Washington has bought both them and their armies so as to have the leverage to economically exploit their countries and dictate their foreign policies. We officially call this arrangement “stability.” It works most of the time because most people are in fact passive and fearful. Yet, at the same time the U.S. government has presented itself as the champion of democracy. This is mostly for domestic American consumption, but it does make it difficult for Washington to turn around and advocate the slaughter of protestors in those rare moments when such a choice presents itself.

However, that does not mean there are not those among us who have not and would not again do just that or worse. Henry Kissinger and his Chilean friend Augusto Pinochet come to mind.. More recently there are the neo-conservatives. As far as I am concerned, Jimmy Carter did the right thing by advising the Shah of Iran not to slaughter those he had so long oppressed. And, just so, Barack Obama has (at least so far) done the right thing by advising Hosni Mubarak and his generals not to slaughter the people of Egypt. However, there is little doubt that Mubarak would have gotten a very different message from George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and the entire gang that ran the U.S.A. only a few years ago.

* * *

The future outcomes of these popular revolts are also difficult to predict. Unless the protesting elements have strong organization and a clear notion of how they want their future to look, these things can peter out as quickly as they erupt. Then the names of the dictators may change, but the repressive game stays approximately the same. That is also something Washington calls “stability”or, in the present case of Egypt, an “orderly transition.” Then again, once there is turmoil all manner of possible outcomes are possible. In Tunisia the dictator is gone and, right now, the country is calm as a new government is formed. In Egypt things are much more uncertain. It seems to me that the U.S. is presently backing Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s newly named vice president. Suleiman was the head of the Egyptian Intelligence Services and is identified with policies of cooperation with Israel, particular when it comes to Gaza. He can be relied upon to be Washington’s man in Cairo. Yet the likelihood of the Egyptian people swapping Mubarak for Suleiman is highly unlikely. There is also the fact that the Muslim Brothers, who have kept a low profile so far, can put half a million additional protesting Egyptians in the streets within hours with little regard to the fact that this would certainly upset Secretary of State Clinton. They have expressed their willingness to cooperate with Mohammed El Baradei, someone much more acceptable to the general population than Suleiman.

So you see, once the genie is out of the bottle so to speak, unless you, the government and its foreign supporters, are willing to kill a lot of people, you really can’t control the outcome. As in Tunisia, the Egyptian army has so far decided not to murder its own people. Therefore, we don’t really know how this is all going to play out in the land of the Nile.

LAWRENCE DAVIDSON is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester PA.