Monday, February 8, 2016

Tahrir Square, two lessons for today

Tahrir Square, Cairo Egypt, 2011
 There are two messages for us. 

The first: inequality and injustice will provoke forced change. 
The second: change is difficult and it takes years.
"I hope that by the end of this year, we will have an elected government and that universal freedoms are applied and that we put an end to the corruption that has taken over this country."  ~ Mosaab El Shami, 2011
"We are suffering from corruption, oppression, and bad education, and it has to change."  ~ Noha Hamed, 2011

Protesters in Egypt repeatedly spoke the same message.


Egypt had struggled for years as a country ruled by elites, with laws structured for the benefit of the few, with wealth pouring into the pockets of the privileged. Hosni Mubarak siphoned off a personal fortune, perhaps enough to make a  couple of million households quite comfortable. As public industry was privatized, Mubarak and his family demanded a stake in virtually every enterprise with estimates of a $70+ billion family fortune.

Things exploded.  Violently.

Welcome to the Arab Spring.  Long awaited, it began in Tunisia in 2010, and we can perhaps expect the next decades to see more by way of forced change.  Much is likely to be quite uncomfortable.

From an Egyptian friend (2016); not every Egyptian wanted the revolution to take place. Mubarak had given them 30 years of relative peace and stability, and most of the bad guys were in jail.  Now, they face increased crime and violence, and they worry about their children's safety.  "Thugs, kidnappers, terrorists, thieves, and rapists are all walking and driving next to us. Ethics and morals have changed according to those in power. We are living in hell...."

The prelude:  Economic inequality (1980-2010) in Egypt was not as severe as in other countries in the region, but it was perceived as significant by the lower income groups; the downturn of '07 hit them hard.  Emergency laws were in place for most of 30 years under Mubarak, and the constitution was suspended.  Police brutality was common as were torture and imprisonment without charges.  Egyptian media was directly controlled by the security apparatus.  Freedom of speech was limited, especially if you wanted to criticize the government. Due process was rare, and an incautious critic could just disappear. Egyptian security forces operated generally outside the law and without public accountability.  Quality education declined.  Egypt, the former breadbasket for the Mediterranean, became the world's largest importer of wheat.  Farming villages and communities declined due primarily to neglect by central government.
--- Five years have passed ---

After Mubarak's ouster, Egypt managed to democratically elect a president, approve a constitution, and lose it all to a military coup shortly thereafter. Since the revolution, poverty has continued to increase, 31% of children now are malnourished, unemployment is high, food shortages plague most of the country. Approximately 40% of women and 50% of children under 5 are anemic from iron deficiency. Revolution is neither quickly nor easily concluded. Difficult tasks remain.

Note the broader issues: unequal representation, class discrimination, corruption, and an unconquerable gap between the privileged and the commoner, all persist.

Examples elsewhere:  The political structure of a country is the primary determinant for the well-being of the citizenry.  On the Korean peninsula, we see a common lineage, geography, history, and culture divided into two countries; one of the richest and one of the poorest countries in the world, one of the most free and one of the most oppressed, differentiated solely by imposed political structure.  The differences in every category are startling.  East and West Germany were similarly divergent.

Today:  The revolution has been effectively crushed, and Egypt is again under the rule of a dictatorial regime, at least for now.

How might such practices over time have contributed to current unrest in the Middle East? How did Mubarak treat the Muslim Brotherhood?  Are there issues we each need to understand?

Our hopes and prayers today are with friends and kindred spirits in Egypt and elsewhere, those who hope for a better world for their children, a place where every individual matters.

Note:  the common voice of the people on Tahrir Square called for political change, for equality and justice.  This is not Egypt's first revolution, but when Egyptians shook off the Ottoman Empire and the British colonialists, government was not reformed.  It has been repeatedly handed off, elites to elites, and unchanged. 

Ref: Why Nations Fail ~Acemoglu & Robinson, 2012

You might also appreciate:  The GAP