For this week's installment of Flashback Friday, I am "flashing back"...all the way to...last Friday! That was the day when Egyptian "president-for-life" Hosni Mubarak decided to step down from power, a stunning reversal of his previous statement that he would not step down until September. It was weird to hear the news on the radio in the morning and then see a copy of the day's New York Times with a headline stating that Mubarak refuses to relinquish power. It made for a great day, that was already pretty great to begin with. I've heard other people mention how good they were feeling on Friday. This relatively non-violent revolution in Egypt is truly one for the history books, right up there with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.
Once again, the Egyptian people have shown the world exactly the kind of power common people can have when they rise up against corrupt leaders, inspire the world's sympathy and support, and not back down until their demands are met. Czech dissident playwright Vaclav Havel had written during the Communist era an excellent essay that should be required reading by everyone: "The Power of the Powerless." Basically, even people who don't have political power do have another kind of power: moral. Gandhi, Dr. King, Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, Corazon Aquino, and Nelson Mandela have all shown that people can change their country if they truly want it. The question is, why doesn't it happen more often? I've read some essays by social scientists and political scientists who say that such revolution only comes when the breaking point had been reached. The "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" moment. I had such a moment last September in my job from hell and things happened that altered my career trajectory (I'm much more satisfied in my working life. It was a huge blessing to be let go!).
Seeing the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt reminded me how complacent and cowardly we are. When the Supreme Court overruled the Florida Supreme Court regarding the recount of the ballots in the state of Florida during the 2000 presidential election, thereby handing victory to the man who had lost the popular vote by half a million votes, I wanted to protest. I wanted people to rise up and demand justice. Bush has a history of showing cowardice, so he likely would have backed down if Americans had stormed Austin, Tallahassee, Miami, and Washington, D.C. demanding that all the ballots be counted no matter how long it took. Imagine how differently our world would look if Bush never got to bring his lifelong incompetence to the White House. Of course, we might be under a President John McCain or President Hillary Clinton now.
Anyhow, the news regarding Egypt really made me feel great all weekend. I didn't post as often as I had wanted to last week because I was absolutely addicted to the news from the Middle East. I was so fascinated that I even read an article that offered more details about the Tunisian revolution, known as "The Jasmine Revolution." I did not know that the spark for all of this began with a college-educated man in his 20s who was working as a vegetable seller at a market in Tunisia. The problem for much of the Middle East is that these countries have a large population of young people, but not enough jobs to go around. People can only go to school for so many years before its time to do something productive in society. Unemployment rate is anywhere between 50%-70%. This is ripe recruiting ground for terrorist networks like al-Qaeda.
The college-educated vegetable seller was harassed by a police officer, and out of his anger, he went to a government office to address his grievances. He gave a deadline ultimatum, which passed without concern by the government. So the young man set himself afire. This act of suicide sparked an angry response among the young people of Tunisia and they rose up in protest against the government. The Tunisian people utilized Twitter and Facebook to organize, and Wikileaks provided more outrage, as they learned details about how lavishly wealthy the leader and his cronies were. The mobs of angry people probably scared the dictator of Tunisia (Ben Ali, I think his name is) into relinquishing power and going off into exile. It was pretty quick and easy. Thanks to the popularity of Twitter and Facebook, as well as damaging information through Wikileaks and Al-Jazeera, the fire of liberty went to Egypt next. It was 18 days from the first protests to the resignation of Hosni Mubarak. In the period between, many Middle East experts thought Mubarak was too entrenched for the revolution to be successful. However, all dicators throughout history have the same problem: there are more of THEM than there are of YOU. Millions of people rising up to demand justice from their government can get results.
Many pundits have criticized President Obama for straddling the fence on this. However, the fault is not with the President, but with American foreign policy. I personally believe that Obama's heart was with the people of Egypt rather than the corrupt ruling class. In 2009, Obama had given a highly acclaimed speech in Cairo, that some think might have inspired the young people of Egypt to demand changes in their society. People think of the U.S. President as the most powerful person in the world, but the reality is, the President still has to tow the line of the special interests that rule our country. Its no secret to anyone who studied politics that Mubarak was an ally of the United States government. We never heard anything bad about Mubarak in the news. Never! Egypt and Israel are the largest receipients of U.S. foreign aide, which was part of the Camp David Accords when Sadat and Begin made the historic peace agreement. Would that have happened if the U.S. government did not promise a long-term financial benefit for both countries?
Mubarak had been in power for over 30 years. I didn't think he was a bad guy, because the American media never reported the truth about him. Certainly not during the 1991 Gulf War. It was only in the Bush years when I started learning the truth about Mubarak, particularly the disturbing fact that a majority of the 9/11 hijackers were Eyptian citizens (I believe 11 of the 19 were Egyptian, if memory serves). The Bush government also renditioned enemy combatants picked up in Afghanistan and Pakistan to Egypt because they had no such ban on the use of torture. This is typical of Bush's cowardice: outsource the torture so your conscience can be "clean" when you face God. Well, Bush, God's more intelligent than you can possibly fathom, so you're not fooling anyone. It was stunning to me that such things went on in Mubarak's government, yet our media did not report in detail nor did the beat the drum on Mubarak's corruption and human rights violations the way they did for Saddam Hussein.
Americans don't seem to realize that propaganda exists in our country. When the media designates a foreign leader as a bad person, Americans believe it unquestioningly. When the media ignores the human rights violations of an ally (Ferdinand Marcos, Augustin Pinochet, PW Botha, King Fahd, Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega, Hosni Mubarak, and Islam Karamov to name a few), Americans are blissfully ignorant. But if a Republican president wants to go to war, all of the sudden, the traitorous "ally" is "worse than Hitler" and needs to be removed from office! The media whips up a frenzy and ignorant Americans everywhere suddenly become "experts" in international politics. I'm in favour of a more consistent policy. None of this "democracy and oil for us, despots and dictatorships for you" crap. If we want to be consistent and true to our values, every human being who stands up against tyranny will have our support. Period. Even if it makes "allies" like Mubarak uncomfortable.
President Obama did have an impact, though. His administration told the Egyptian government to not use "Made in the USA" tear gas and for the Egyptian military to not fire on the people. I wonder what went on the mind of Mubarak during the last few weeks. A karmic reckoning was coming to him. He promised changes, but these were the promises of a scared despot which lacked credibility. He had 30 years to make positive changes, but used it to consolidate power and amass a multi-billion dollar fortune (I've read that he had amassed around $70 billion from all the kickbacks he received from every business in Egypt).
In the aftermath, there was an article where the CIA was called in to answer questions by Senators, such as Dianne Feinstein. How could the CIA not see this coming, went the line of questioning. However, I'm glad that the CIA completely missed this one because given their history, had they known about such populist uprising reaching a boiling point, I'm sure that they would have warned Mubarak early on and he would might have been able to crush it before it began. Its great that the CIA was completely in the dark about this. They don't have an interest in human rights and democratically elected governments in developing world nations, so screw them. Senators shouldn't even grill them on it, because its ridiculous in the way that conservatives in the Truman era blamed the Democratic president for "losing China." We are so narcissistic in our nationalism that we can't see from the perspective of the average person in Egypt. Its not about American power, really, but the desire to have a government accountable to the people.
In fact, I see these uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt as a generational conflict, so you can bet whose side I'm on. The Baby Boomer generation basically screwed up our world in their desire to squander wealth for their own benefit, robbing future generations of prosperity and a healthy planet. The Greatest Generation that saved the world from fascist tyranny in Europe and Asia, and rebuilt Europe left a prosperous world for their children. What do the Boomers leave members of Generation X and the Millennials? Debt, environmental devastation, and poverty. I'm glad to see the young people of the Middle East rising up against the unfairness of it all. All we want is a decent, affordable life, where it is possible to raise a family on a single income, where we have access to good jobs and a healthy environment.
One amusing news story in the aftermath of Mubarak's resignation was that the King of Bahrain was offering each family in his Kingdom a $3,000 bonus. Didn't seem to work, because Bahrain has seen protests. Algeria, Libya, and Yemen have also seen protests. I hope these young people remain brave and grow in numbers. I would love to see one despotic regime after another fall throughout the late winter and spring. Here are the countries that need to flush out their despotic regimes: Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Sudan, Ethiopia, Yemen, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Syria, Iran, Pakistan, and Burma. May they all collapse this year. Power to the people! This could be an exciting year. Stay tuned!