Thursday, February 03, 2011

Bastille Day in Egypt

Curious, isn't it, how much of the commentary about Egypt's current uprising is hyperfocused on the fact that Egypt happens to be in the Middle East while tending to ignore the larger historical framework in which this current revolt finds itself. Granted, the region is incendiary, but the issues behind the unrest of the past ten days won't disappear with a simple change in command, and Egypt is begging for the underlying issues to be addressed.

What's happening in Cairo today is principally not much different from what happened in Paris on Bastille Day back on July 14, 1789. This is a garden variety revolution that is being viewed through the lens of religion merely because the uprising happens to fall in an area where conflagration often accompanies religious differences. But, despite the best efforts of the radical right wing, the movement to overthrow Hosni Mubarak is squarely based on economics, and politicsl disenfranchisement. In that sense, it is not unlike the French who rose up against King Louix XVI.

Essentially, the Egyptian uprising has nothing to do with Islam, only little to do with social media, and is mostly about the Egyptian economy. The unemployment rate there is 9.4% as of 2009, and over 90% of unemployed Egyptians are young people between the ages of 15-29 which has resulted in much frustration for those unable to find the kind of jobs they need to have a decent lifestyle, and their parents.

Accounding to the Population Council, (, approximately 70% of unemployed Egyptian young people say they're unemployed because work is unavailable to them.

And, while there are many protestors on Cairo streets who are older, the vast majority are those most directly affected by unemployment.

More than two hundred years ago, those who took to the streets in Paris were also attacking the ruling class of their country whose feudal, and aristocratic privileges mirror those of autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

The French Revolution was prompted by a financial crisis in which the lower classes, and workers absorbed the greatest tax burden, and there was an unfair distribution of wealth as there is in Egypt where the government is completely out of touch with the plight of that country's unemployed youth. Of course, the difference is the French had a declared monarch while Egypt has had the illusion of democratic elections.

The indigent of France went after the Bastille fortress not just for its arms, but as a symbol of royal power and entitlement in much the same way many unemployed Egyptian protestors went after presidential apartments, and symbols of Egyptian culture. Notably, deteriorating economic conditions, as well as egregious economic disparity are to be found at the core of both insurrections.

You'll remember, too, that the king of France, Louis XVI, was executed under a new republic that ushered in the Enlightenment, as well as the twin components of inalienable rights, and modern era notions about citizenship.

So, it is then that Egypt is having a Karl Marx moment, as well as a date with modernity. The seeds of that country's discontent, like that of its neighbor Tunisia, reside in the limited economic opportunities of the vast majority of its people, as well as in the unequal distribution of the country's assets.

While western media have mentioned economic factors, they have largely depicted Mubarak's shutting down the Internet, and loss of access to social media as the cause of the rebellion when it was merely the catalyst. One must never confuse the catalyst with the cause.

Yes, Mubarak likely clamped down on access to the world wide web in response to the threat posed by social media sites to enable young people to organize, it's doubtful that anyone, especially Mubarak, could expect that one gesture to ignite the phenomenal response, and bring out the hundreds of thousands of people in Tarhir Square that we've seen over the past several days. It is equally unlikely that what happened in Cairo was a copycat of what happened earlier in Tunisia.

Once started, the wildfire of economic discontent spreads rapidly. No surprise then that American journalists, like CNN's Anderson Cooper and ABC News's Christiane Amanpour face angry crowds. Cooper was reportedly struck by pro-Mubarak forces, and Amanpour by a group of young Egyptians who defiantly proclaimed that they "hate Americans."

America, widely regarded by the rest of the world, as the rich kid on the block even in its most depressed moments, could readily be evoked as a symbol of power and world domination. Egyptian concern may be well-founded as the western media has managed to sway public opinion to intervene in the internal affairs of otherwise sovereign states. Arguably, too, there might be deep-seated worry that the U.S. might try to micromanage whatever reform comes in the wake of Mubarak's inevitable departure.

Importantly, western efforts to incite fearmongering by suggesting a "domino" effect in the region with the suggestion that, if the Muslim Brotherhood, or any other group identifying itself overtly with Islam were to take over in Egypt, it could lead to a nuclear holocaust is the same kind of thinking that got us into the Cold War with the Soviet Union. This point of view is not only flat out wrong, it is dangerously wrong. The only thing that might result is more concessions from Israel which is also inevitable.

Any wink and nod attempt to stir Islamophobia is one that must be met with immediate rebuke as it's not only irresponsible, but inflammatory. In a recent television interview, 2012 Republican presidential hopeful, Mitt Romney, spoke strongly about the threat posed by what he hesitated to call Islamic fascists outright, but that was clearly what he meant.

We only view the revolution in Egypt through the lens of Islam because it's happening in a predominantly Muslim country, and it gives neo-conservative elements in America the opportunity to wage their own xenophobic dominionist jihad.

Make no mistake, the uprising in Egypt has about as much to do with Islam as the French Revolution had to do with Catholicism.

The Egyptian people deserve an enthusiastic thumbs up for at least addressing the huge economic disparity in their country while we, in the U.S., essentially gild ours.