All around the world people are talking about how Tahrir Square is what could have happened in 1989; how People Power finally rose up against the tyranny of the world; how they felt tears in their eyes and prickles on their skin watching and listening as the poor of Egypt took over the capital and then finally the entire country.
The revolution in Egypt is a powerful reminder that Yes We Can when we really want to: when bread prices rise up out of our reach, when jobs never materialize, when normal people oppress and cheat their fellow men and women just because they have a uniform on, when our leaders drone on about Change only to do exactly as they have always done.
All these things contributed to the fall of Mubarak. But the most vital forces weren’t the 30 years of corruption or the static state of Egypt’s economy: the two factors that contributed the most to Egypt’s revolution were the rise of China’s middle class and America’s misguided Middle East Policy.
America is the Symbol, Egypt the Example
The people of Egypt managed this while Americans and their government stood by and watched. In fact, the government they overthrew was — until a couple weeks ago — the US government’s ally in the struggle to subjugate the Middle East and exploit as much of the region’s riches for as long as possible. Also known as The War on Terror.
A few days ago, the New York Times highlighted a group of educated young Egyptians, including a Google executive, who reportedly planned the protests from day one. The group of intellectuals allied with the Muslim Brotherhood and erstwhile Communists, cleverly using the poverty of the masses to swell their ranks and ultimately outsmart the government while keeping each other abreast of their activities using social media and Google Chat. It was a self-congratulatory piece as much as it was a report on the Egyptian Uprising.
Articles like these are in keeping with America’s need to feel a part of every democratic revolution no matter what the color. While Obama distances himself from George W. Bush’s “old friend” and 30-year beneficiary of USAID Hosni Mubarak, Americans at large love to hear that Facebook isn’t just a platform for daily updates, but also a potent tool for Egypt’s revolutionary-minded.
The truth is, we are essentially “wallflowers at the revolution,” even though we really want in.
If it weren’t for the American government’s (or perhaps better put American Big Business’s) deep disregard for how they get their profits, then the people of Egypt would have never had the boogieman they needed in order to unite — peasant with clerk, student with cleric, engineer with cabbie — and rise up. It’s the same cast of characters that everyone is tired of listing: the military-industrial complex that thrives off of conflict, the massive construction companies that require destruction, the big energy companies that need stability, the Wall Street speculators who love scarcity, inequality and imbalance — the difference is that in Egypt the revolution actually succeeded.
And for many Americans out there — including the President I voted for — the fact that a little band of young intellectuals may have used Twitter and Facebook a few times and are able to write in English is enough to exonerate us for our ignorance and indifference.
Good Times Cannot Be Had By All
On the far side of the spectrum is China, a country and people who want little to do with the uprisings in the Middle East. China doesn’t have the same conditions as Egypt, but the CCP is not taking any chances: discussion is muted and the coverage that does leak through is of a Shanghai tour group’s harrowing escape from Cairo and other scary, violent effects of People Power.
Last year was a great year for wheat, but not great enough to satisfy the world’s demand for wheat. Although the world’s wheat producers put together one of the largest harvests ever, droughts and severe winters in Russia and China coupled with increased consumption (especially in Asia) outstripped production.
“In this case, Asian demand has priced food staples out of the Arab budget. As prosperous Asians consume more protein, global demand for grain increases sharply (seven pounds of grain produce one pound of beef). Asians are rich enough, moreover, to pay a much higher price for food whenever prices spike due to temporary supply disruptions, as at the moment.”
In a follow up to to the article linked above, Goldmann puts the West’s ruminations on which model will replace Mubarak’s grip on power in Egypt into perspective:
“Egypt has no oil, insignificant industry, small amounts of natural gas, and 40 million people who are about to become very, very hungry. Without figuring out how to feed the destitute bottom half of the Egyptian population, all the talk of “models” is window-shopping.”
So it’s not just that wheat crops were insufficient (in fact this years wheat harvest is the third largest recorded), but the price of wheat is too high for the poorest people of the world to afford. Al Jazeera has followed the protests across the Middle East since the first Tunisian set himself on fire and they too are noticing that the trend here is not democracy, but hunger.
Population and demand is rising, supply is unable to satisfy everyone and under our free market money-based socio-economic model, the poorest of the world are “priced out” of the game and must endure with less. The first governments to topple are those like Egypt, who are little more than corrupt client states dependent on aid and tourism for survival.
Egypt’s Downtrodden Masses
I only spent a few weeks in Cairo back in 2006. While I was there I spent much of my time in Mukattam, an extraordinary city of garbage inhabited by the Coptic Christians of the city — migrants from the south who make their living collecting, sifting and selling the refuse of the nation’s capital. They’re relegated to the very bottom rung of society mostly because they’re Christian, but also because they eat pork.
The people of Mukattam were a hardy, optimistic bunch and they thought that education would bring them out of the sewers and into mainstream society. They spent all of their money on their children’s schooling (unless the patriarch decided that sifting through garbage could bring more money, which they often did) in the hopes of a new life.
Those hopes ran up against two walls: the fact that few employers outside of Egypt recognize Egyptian diplomas and that tourism is the largest money-maker in the country. Just like with Tunisia and other parts of the Middle East, an education is no guarantee of a job.
I also spent some time checking out schools built specifically to educate small girls, located deep in the countryside, where the sun beat down upon brown villages filled with idle men and scurrying women. The girls in these schools were so eager to learn and so excited by each and every letter they wrote that it was heartbreaking to learn that around half of them would undergo female genital mutilation at the hands of their fathers and grandfathers.
Remember when almost every city in China had what they called “Lanwei Lou” (???), buildings that were built up halfway and then abandoned. That sickness is widespread throughout Cairo. All across town, rebar poke through dusty Nile bricks like ribs on a skeleton.
On a cab ride from the affluent Mahdi neighborhood where I was staying with the wife of an oil executive, the cabbie and I got to chatting and he learned that I was living in China. He spent the last ten minutes of our ride talking about how the Chinese were doing it, making money and developing while in Egypt the dust piled up as fat tourists came and went.
I wrote about the Chinese “invasion” of the Nile in 2007 and how the Egyptians welcomed it as an energetic and optimistic alternative to the US support for “stability” at the expense of the nation’s downtrodden poor. Little did they know that China’s entrepreneurial energy would help bring down the stable government that had been America’s “stalwart ally” for more than three decades.
Keep Your Head Above the Water
Whoever does emerge out of Egypt’s chaos as the leaders — be it the alliance of leftists and Islamists allegedly led by a Google-ist or some combination of government and military that clings to power for the time being — they will have a lot to deal with: Egypt is already in debt, the people are paying three to four times what they normally would for staples, and tourism has ground to a halt.
When the emotions of revolution subside and the hard work of nation building begins, how many Egyptians will have the patience to carry on? When the country begins defaulting, starving and begging for aid, how many speculators will have the heart to lend a hand instead of purchasing a grain future?
We’re only going to see more of this as China’s middle class gobbles up the world’s resources, making it hard for anyone else to get a piece of the pie. The cold truth is we have finite resources. Our socio-economic model would work great if we had infinite resources and exploiting them resulted in zero pollution. But that’s not the case. We’re running out of oil and no matter how many pigs we slaughter, wheat we reap or eggs we gather there will not be enough in the decades to come.
What role will the US and China play then?