I’m not sure the crisis in Egypt is so much about democracy, which is the focus of our media, as it is about financial issues. The people in Egypt began to take to the streets to protest the growing cost of food, the jobs situation, and the increase in poverty. They blame this on Mubarak, who has been in place for 30 years and has been supported by, and considered a puppet for, the US.
All the unrest and rioting in the past year have been due to financial constraints and increasingly harsh living conditions for the common men of the various countries: Greece, Great Britain, Ireland, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Algeria – the rioting in all these countries was directly caused by finances. People feel cheated out of their wages, pensions, jobs, and even food – and this all goes back to the continuing (because I can assure you it’s not over yet) economic meltdown caused by the big banks.
In Egypt, there is close to 10% unemployment. 20% live under the poverty line. 10% of the population controls 28% of all household income. In the US, we have nearly 10% unemployment (officially, although our real unemployment number is closer to 18 or 19% and the same can be said of Egypt), 16% (47.8 million) living under the poverty level, and 10% of the population controls 30% of household income. In the latest inequality numbers, the US actually has a higher inequality rate of wealthy vs. poor than Egypt.
In ’05, Egypt began deregulation of its financial system to attract foreign investors and sold off parts of its national banks to international banking interests. As a result, foreign banks were able to start hitting up the Egyptians for fees. Foreign banks began investing in the assets and infrastructure of the country and were able to avoid taxes due to the deregulation. Egypt has not been immune to the financial meltdown and as conditions worsened for the average family, people blamed it on the government. It’s what has happened everywhere, and some of the countries wracked with rioting are democracies already; this is not an issue that has only affected dictatorships. This much failure on the part of the governments to protect people from the greed and rapacious gaming of the financial system inevitably makes societies seek change. It’s quite thrilling to join the Egyptians as they call for democracy (they want what we have! See, we knew we were the best!), but what they really are asking for is a change from what does not appear to be working.
I would remind you that this is exactly what we were asking for with the election of Obama. “Change” after the deregulatory policies, TARP, bank bailouts, and Bush tax cuts brought us to an economic emergency. Now suppose the Egyptians achieve the overthrow of Mubarak and have a true democratic election in September when they are scheduled to hold their next election. And this is not even to say the average Egyptian means the same thing by democracy that we mean by the word. We think, “ah, democracy – free speech, everyone votes, women and minorities have equal rights, a unicorn in every garage,” emotional sigh. They may not be very interested in those exact ideals; they want to choose their own leaders, yes, but we shouldn’t assume they want leaders who will guarantee the same things we would expect of our Presidential candidates. If their main concern is having a government which does not import our financial catastrophes and which does not toe the American imperial line, we might be very surprised by the party they choose. They are not Americans. I daresay we don’t know them and their societal mores at all. One of my sons just returned from a trip to Egypt and Kenya. The group he was with was met at the airport in Cairo by a tour guide and an Egyptian Army officer carrying an AK47. The Army guy was their “protection”, a service offered to all tourists (or, at least, to all American tourists) as a matter of course. He escorted the group everywhere; all day, every day. The tour guide suggested on the first day that the women in the group should wear scarves to cover their heads, as a bare head was considered wanton and immoral and, he added, Egyptian men assume American women are sex-crazed anyway. Naturally, the Americans wouldn’t consider such a limit to their “freedom”. However, after a couple of days of suggestive remarks, touches, and offers to have their services bought, every single woman was wearing a head covering. It is the way it is. The tour guide was not apologetic for it and did not say anything about Egyptians “wishing things were different for women”. He himself was chauvinistic toward the women without being overtly rude and was quite unconscious of the impression he was leaving on the Americans. The point is not that he and other Egyptian males are wrong, but that the society is different from American society. It’s stupid for us to pretend they would automatically do things the way we do.
So suppose that Egypt has an election and the democratic process does not, in fact, change their economy for the better. Unemployment does not improve, poverty continues to grow, the wealthy become even wealthier….to what system or party do they turn next? Well, look where we are turning. Despite our democracy and our vote for “change”, we are continuing the same Bush tax cuts and letting our leaders threaten social security. We are deregulating even faster than before and giving ever more money to the big banks who fucking stole our money in the first place. Instead of getting health insurance reform, we have a mandate to buy a product for whatever the insurance companies choose to charge. Instead of making sure big companies aren’t poisoning our water and food, we are allowing the dumbest people in Congress talk about eliminating the EPA and think Obama is being savvy by bringing in even more big business corporatist and lobbyists into the inner circle. Instead of realizing the obvious – that things aren’t getting better because Obama and Congress intensified and expanded the errors of the past 30 years – the American people are moving further to the right than ever before. We are asking for less regulation, offering up our rights voluntarily (except we want to keep our guns, goddamnit), willing to give up our money, free speech, right to travel unharassed, even give up our houses and jobs as though this is now the change that will make it all better. We are even rewriting our history in an effort to “change” things. A lot of Americans suddenly want Christian “sharia” laws and after a couple of years of things getting progressively worse, are happy to revert to blaming the economy on poor minorities buying shit they couldn’t afford, see unemployment benefits as lazy people refusing to work, and think Michele Bachman speaks fluent English and makes sense.
Look, only 47% of working age Americans have a full time job at this point – 108.6 million of us are unemployed, underemployed or not in the labor force. 43.2 million Americans receive food stamps.
It will be interesting to see what Egypt does. It’ll be interesting to see what we do. But I don’t think this is so much about democracy as it is about poor people versus rich people. We are, as usual, late in understanding and on the wrong side. For some reason, we are determined to blame the poor and enable the rich, gradually give up our democracy to give power over to singularly stupid and mendacious politicians who are happy to sell us out to companies that are ripping us off and making us sick. Our next president might well be a dictator or tyrant, duly elected, elected on purpose, to “change” things. I assume the Egyptians will do better than that, but wouldn’t be surprised to see them choose someone who is protectionist about Egypt and less pro-American than Mubarak.