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Poverty—Fathering Still-Born Revolutions in Arabia

--Cutting-Edge Analytics--

By: Franklin Otorofani
 Published February 24th, 2011

Tunisia and Egypt have fallen in that order; Algeria, Yemen, Bahrain and Libya are quaking with tremors; and Iran, Jordan, UAR and Saudi Arabia are lying directly on its perilous path. And so also are Qatar, Kuwait and many others. The still unfolding political events in North Africa and the Middle East have rightly or wrongly been described as “revolutions” in many quarters.

It’s not my desire to split hairs over the meaning of the term, but let’s get our terminology aright so that we might be and remain on the same page in this fascinating discourse about what is really happening in those parts of the world at the moment and perhaps continuing into the immediate future as well, because there is no telling the end of it from its beginnings. And there is no telling either how farther afield it might spread beyond the Gulf States, or for that matter, its wider implications on the still tepidly recovering global economy. There are simply too many imponderables at the moment.

For the most part, it is still work in progress and the character of the finished product is yet unknown and perhaps unknowable even with the declared goals until much later in the day, for who would have known that Egypt would wind up with military regime after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak? As my people would put it graphically, the song that you sing on the way to the river is not the same song you sing on the way back. And so has it been for the Egyptians during and after the fall of Mubarak. They have been forced to sing a different song today on their way back and, believe it or not, it’s not nearly as sonorous as the one they sang yesterday on their way to the river of revolution.

Revolution Defined 

Revolution might mean different things to different people in different places. And it could be applied strictly or loosely to refer to just about any change under the sun. But there is a huge difference between change of government and revolution. In its political signification, however, revolution refers to the complete overthrow of an entire or at the very minimum major components of an existing social order and its replacement with one of a totally different kind usually but not necessarily of an opposite character or genre.

It, therefore, goes way beyond mere change of government to fundamental changes in social relations in the societies of their occurrence. Revolutions touch at the very core of a people’s way of life in all its ramifications; affecting their economics, politics, religion, social, science and technology, arts and culture and, yes, their relationships with the outside world, personalities, attitudes, and much more. Perhaps a good analogy would be the replacement of the engine of a car with a totally different one to power it, which could affect not only the mechanical power of the car but its electrical, fuel, cooling, battery, and lubricating systems in fundamental ways. The engine of a car is the heart of the car, but the driver of a car is not the heart of the car and not even part of the car itself to begin with. The driver is like the government. Therefore, changing the government is like changing the driver of a car.

The overthrow of one social order and its complete replacement with another kind of social order is therefore properly called a revolution, while a change of government that does not result in the overthrow of an existing social order and its replacement with another of a different kind may, for want of better expression, be termed or described as a game of musical chairs that merely reshuffles old and tired faces in the palace or citadel of power.   

What has happened so far in North Africa, though admittedly earth-shattering in the nations affected due to the particular leaderships involved, were not revolutions properly so-called, but ordinary change of governmental leaderships just like the sacking of a company’s board of directors by its shareholders with the company’s product and services, corporate environment, processes and culture remaining basically untouched and intact.

I know this verdict will be hard for folks to swallow having been bombarded with screaming headlines of revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, but that is obviously not the case. I wish it was but it’s not and I’m not going to sit here and dress up the overthrow of a dictator in Egypt or Tunisia as revolution when everything else, including the political and economic systems has remained intact.

Had the authoritarian Mubarak regime been overthrown and replaced outright with a democratic government it would have occasioned not just a change of government but the overthrow the existing social order and therefore entitled to be called a revolution. Regrettably, both in Tunisia and Egypt, the existing social orders in those countries were not overthrown and therefore the unjust social relations that gave rise to the uprisings in the first place have been left completely untouched with no indication whatsoever that they would be addressed in future.

Perhaps the clearest indication that the more things seemed to have changed the more they remain the same in Egypt comes from the Egyptian military itself as reported by the New York Times in its February 18th edition to the effect that the military, which all along had had its own closet economy and involved in the manufacturing of military armored tanks and trucks, washing machines, and even the running of day care centers amongst other commercial interests and had been answerable to none, not even to parliament, has quickly moved to shield those businesses from the prying eyes of the public. It has refused to open up its businesses to public scrutiny and has in fact moved to purge the Egyptian parliament of elements advocating openness in the running of the military’s commercial interests.

Of course both reformers and revolutionaries are not happy about this but that is what the so-called revolution has brought to Egypt. What this revelation tells us is that the Egyptian military which had been a government unto itself under President Hosni Mubarak and has been further empowered by the protesters by acquiring presidential powers in addition to their commercial interests, which they have swiftly moved to protect. Their generals must all be stinking billionaires just like Mubarak himself. And who says Mubarak does not have interests in those commercial business operations with him being the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and being from the military himself in the first place? The whole Egyptian economy is now fair game for the military and you can be sure those commercial interests will only multiply a thousand folds rather than diminish under its total control of governmental powers. Mubarak himself is being heavily guarded by the military at what seems like his vacation resort after his retirement and there is no indication that he will be brought to trial. 

And what is more; the 30-year old state of emergency that allowed the government to arrest and detain people indefinitely has not been lifted even by the military. So, theoretically at least, Egyptians can still be picked up and detained indefinitely. Till date many of the protesters are still missing and the cries and agonies of their parents still rent the air even as others celebrate the fall of Mubarak. One has got to ask, where is the change that people fought for and died for in18 solid days at the Liberation Square? Egyptians, including the protesters themselves are asking this very question and getting no real answers from any quarters whatsoever. Now, can anyone tell us why we should have any confidence at all in a democratic transition overseen by the Egyptian military given its past and present pre-occupations?

It is clear, therefore, that the social order has not changed in Egypt and, if it has, it probably has changed for the worse not better. In this connection, social order refers to the political and socio-economic relations as between the state and the citizens on the one hand, and as amongst the citizens of the state inter-se, encompassing property relations and political rights. Agreed things cannot change overnight but the essence of revolutions is dramatic and abrupt overthrow of the existing social order not incremental changes that are properly termed “reforms” not revolutions. Though the change of governments in Egypt and Tunisia was abrupt and dramatic, that alone without more, does not quality them as revolutions. It is fair to conclude, therefore, that unless and until real multi-party democracies are emplaced in both Tunisia and Egypt, not caricatures, the revolutions that purportedly took place in both countries are decidedly inchoate or at best incomplete. There is unfinished business in both countries that people should come to terms with even as they celebrate the fall of their dictators.

Let’s be clear about this to avoid any hint of misunderstanding or confusion: There is every cause to celebrate the momentous fall of Mubarak and his counterpart in Tunisia, which is a poignant demonstration of the power of the people and the chain of events it has unleashed in other Arab nations and even beyond to Iran. However, great as the uprisings were in terms of their historical significance, the fact remains that inchoate and incomplete revolutions are worse than no revolutions at all in that they create false sense of hope and accomplishments in the minds of the people whereas nothing fundamental has actually changed on the ground. It’s like acquiring half education due to lack of resources or will power to continue to graduation, which we all would agree is dangerous and worse than no education at all because it creates a false of accomplishment or confusing impression of one being educated without being educated.

The reported observation by an Egyptian pharmacist and protester named Ghada Elmasalmy, 43, when he said that the "The army is with us but it must realize our demands. Half revolutions kill nations," as reported by Reuters, goes straight to the heart of the matter. Elmasalmy was right on the money to have characterized what happened in Egypt and Tunisia as “half revolutions,” which I would, however, prefer to describe as a game of musical chairs. Pro-democracy movements in other Arab nations must, therefore, not copy the Egyptian model hook, line and sinker, but guard against the emergence of the military to replace the monarchs in the event of their fall. In fact, they should not do business with the military at all in those countries as did the protesters in Egypt because the military has a different agenda altogether.

No matter how long both Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had stayed in power their overthrow amounts to no more than “regime change” and nothing even close to revolutions. We knew what the American Revolution amounted to in the British colonies in North America. It led to the Declaration of Independence from Britain and the inauguration of the United States of America as sovereign nation, and completely uprooted the pre-existing social order of colonial rule. We knew what the Bolshevik revolution brought about in the Russia. It did not simply overthrow the Czar, but completely uprooted the pre-existing social order of monarchical rule and replaced it with communism and created a new nation called the USSR. The same was true of the English, French and Chinese revolutions and all the other revolutions in history, including those in Cuba, Venezuela and Iran, just to mention but a few that uprooted entire systems and replaced them with totally different ones.

The single most important qualifying characteristic of revolutions is the complete overthrow of the system not mere overthrow of pre-existing governments. This important qualifier has not been satisfied in the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings that led to the fall of their dictatorships. Bluntly put, no revolutions have taken place in those countries but changes in governments. This is not to diminish the importance of those epochal events in any way, but to get our perspectives right. It makes for clarity of analysis as well as proper appreciation of what has taken place so far, and what remains to be done to get to the Promised Land of democracy.

What has been done only amounts to a down payment and the balance must be paid in due course because down payments cannot satisfy an entire indebtedness. That is the next battle ahead in both Egypt and Tunisia and indeed other parts of the Arab world. The incremental revolution must not abate though because the first step is critical and just as important as the last step. A transition to multi-party democracy in Egypt under the present caretaker military regime as promised in six months will hopefully complete the Egyptian revolution. But until that happens, the revolution has effectively been arrested, no thanks to the inexperienced organizers who simply played into the hands of the military.

No Diminution

BUT even so, there is no diminution of the flames of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings that have leapt across their borders to other lands in Arabia thousands of miles away resulting in the alarmed authorities calling in their fire fighters to either contain the spread or put out the fires altogether even as their masses have been excited at the arrival of the flames of democracy in their lands. There is both exhilaration and palpable fear in the air in the North African, Middle-Eastern and, you guessed right, in the Arabian atmospherics. And it’s so thick one could literarily cut through it with a butcher’s knife. From Bahrain to Libya, Algeria to Kuwait, the tree of freedom is being watered by the blood of the brave men and woman who are laying down their lives to liberate their fatherland from the scourge of tyranny.

These regions are having their dates with history—a history that had long been denied them by their maximum rulers. Yes, they are having the bitter/sweet taste of their peoples’ eruption of fury, which had been boiling barely below the surface and has turned into a veritable political hurricane that is leaving debris trail of fallen dictatorships strewn across the Arab world.

But what does this mean for the world? What does this mean for Europe, Africa and North America? I don’t know about Europe and North America but this is definitely good news for Africa that is grappling with democratic transitions. It means North Africa has finally come on board with Africa south of the Sahara, and no more will the likes of Muammar Qadaffi and Hosni Mubarak grace its continental AU meetings. However, Europe has been uncharacteristically silent in the face of these uprisings. The Gordon Browns and Sakorskys of Europe that were beating hard on Iran during its own mass uprisings last year have been missing in action this time around, maintaining studied silence. And for the United States, the word is deliberate ambivalence—that is deliberately speaking from both sides of her mouth—appearing to be neither for nor against the revolutions. It’s called diplomatese—which practically means being neither here nor there but straddling both worlds with legs spread out across the great divide just in case one side wins at the end of the day. 


However, this must be extremely troubling and unsettling for the United States, which has reportedly dispatched an envoy to the region to reassure and calm the frayed nerves of its “allies” that no harm would come their way. It is not clear, however, how much store those allies would reasonably and prudently be expected to place on such panic driven reassurances handed out by Washington with the flaming fury in the Arabian streets and given her ambivalence in the management of the crisis in Egypt and coupled with the fact that the US itself was totally caught flat-footed by these extremely contagious eruptions in the region. 

Short of being judgmental and unduly sanctimonious in the circumstances, one would have thought, and rightly so too, that given the loudly professed interest of the United States in the promotion of democracy all over the globe and not just in unfriendly countries only, she would have regarded these popular, spontaneous, revolutionary, democratic uprisings as God-sent and ride the wave of public opinion to establish herself firmly in the minds of the peoples of the region rather than in the minds of their autocratic rulers, the so-called “allies”. Oh, how awful that sounds!

Paradoxically the direct opposite seems to be the case and that is quite a regrettable betrayal of the trust of the peoples of that region who had all along been led to believe that the US would always stand on their side unequivocally in their legitimate democratic aspirations. I’m still unable to wrap my hands around the rather puzzling attitude of ambivalence that has thus far been exhibited by the United States with respect to Egypt and now Bahrain which is home to US naval fleet. I thought the term “ally” should apply to friendly countries not necessarily or exclusively to particular regimes or governments that ought to come and go, not ossified in perpetuity.

It becomes even more troubling when its high ranking officials including the VP, Joe Biden, publicly declared their preference for Mubarak and denying that he was, in fact, a dictator. The same thing is repeating itself with regard to the kingdom of Bahrain yet another “ally” facing the people’s fury for democracy. If Mubarak was not a dictator then nobody is or was a dictator, seriously speaking. And the term “dictator” does not exist in our lexicon anymore. Which makes one wondering aloud: Is this the United States of America founded on solid values of freedom and liberty we’re talking about or some other country? And is this coming from President Barack Obama’s administration that promised change “we can believe in”? The word “incredible!” does not even begin to describe it.  

It would appear that for the United States the fear of Islamic fundamentalists getting to power through the democratic process is the beginning of wisdom. And for that reason alone democracy could take the back seat in that neck of the woods. But the people; from Tunisia to Egypt; Egypt to Yemen; Yemen to Iran; Iran to Bahrain have taken their destinies in their hands to sack the dictators and they couldn’t be bothered about Uncle Sam. Sad to say, but the United States has lost the Arabian streets to the revolutionary forces that it should have been doing business with in the first place.

With that said, however, one cannot but sympathize with the Obama administration because it has inherited this cozy relationships with dictators in the Middle East and it is next to impossible to change a long ingrained policy that seemed to protect US national vital interests in that region even if it’s against US national values. What would you do when a long standing ally is being hounded out of office by a bunch of unemployed kids in the streets? Shout “Hurrah, Hosanna in the Highest!”? That would appear to be betrayal of the highest order and therefore immoral.

Perhaps the question should have been, why did the US have dictators as “allies” in that region in the first place against her national values and her professed drive for global democracy? I’m not here to answer that question but it has everything to do with Israel and the fear of the spread of Islamic faith, the fastest growing religion in the world especially of the radical brand that has been blamed for global terrorism. And you can’t blame the west for that either given what has been happening particularly since the last decade. And the west has her oil interests to protect as well which cannot be sacrificed on the altar of democracy that will only benefit and empower Islamic Jihadists. That is the dilemma the west has suddenly found itself. Besides it has geo-political realities to contend with, with respect to the imperial ambitions of Iran. The morale is, don’t push too hard for what you cannot control for you just might get it and wind up being the loser. Some hard lesson in international relations! Old paradigms and allegiances are crumbling fast like a house of cards before our very eyes. Isn’t that interesting? The Arabian streets are literarily remaking the world and when the dust settles the world will never be the same again. Europe had its time. Asia had its time. North America had its time. Africa had its time. And the Middle East is having its time now, to plant the tree of democracy. 

While democracy doesn’t necessarily provide jobs or eradicate poverty it, at least, allows people to vent their anger on their leaders through the ballot boxes in the hope that the emergence of new leaders would somehow bring some changes that could make real differences in their lives. In other words, elections bring hope and expectations, and that is what sustains life in the long run. Never mind that such hopes and expectations are more often than not met with disappointments rather than appointments. But even disappointments bring further hopes and expectation and that is what propels the cycle of elections that keeps the engine of democracy humming ad infinitum—hopes and expectations plumbed through the electoral processes.

Democracy much like religion, is like opium or lullaby that lulls people to sleep and into a false sense of complacency in the maintenance of the present system of things, which never changes except for its operators. And that is why revolutions are not likely to occur in democratic nations whether or not citizens in those countries are living from hand to mouth. All that happens in democratic countries are protests and demonstrations like the ones taking place at this moment in Wisconsin, United States, which are geared toward changing policies or government as the case may be, but never to overthrow the existing social order. In other words, people revolt with their votes in democratic societies. And that is why history has yet to record a change, so far as this writer knows, from democracy to an authoritarian or any other system except of course, through some illegal or unconstitutional means as, for instance, in military coups. 

Revolting with their votes ensures that the democratic system itself remains untouched regardless, precisely because it affords the people the chance to throw out their governments for whatever reasons, no questions asked. Therefore, the ability of the people to overthrow the government for the time being in power through the ballot box is what brings stability to democratic nations because it allows the people a great avenue to exhaust out their frustrations thus cooling down things albeit temporarily. For instance, all the demonstrations and protests; all the hysterical shrieks and even violent disposition of the Tea Party arm of the Republican Party in the United States were channeled through the democratic process which led to the sacking or, if you like, the overthrow of the Democrats in the US Congress with Republicans capturing the House of Representatives and narrowly missing the Senate by just a few seats. Were the US presidency in play in the mid-term elections, President Barack Obama would have been history by now as he would have been swept out of office by the Tea Party hurricane.

The point I’m laboring hard to make here is that all that political energy that was channeled and exhausted out through the democratic process has resulted in the cooling of the political system. All those shrieks, demonstrations and protests immediately ceased after the elections. The peoples of the Africa and the Arab world do not have such luxuries due to the absence of democracy and their nations are therefore veritable candidates for revolutions.

But has the change of government made any difference in the economic circumstances of poor Americans? Not at all! Has that brought back the 8million jobs lost under both the GW Bush and Obama administrations? Not at all! And, has that improved on the 9% unemployment rate the nation has been stuck in for more than a year now? Not at all! Or, for that matter, has it improved the prospects of economic growth in the US by even a notch? Not at all! In fact, the economic growth rate has further shrunken to less than 3% after the elections.

Driving out Democrats from power has not achieved anything except to dissipate political energies in the polity by providing the politically active segment of the masses an outlet to vent their frustrations on whoever happens to be in government at the time just as they did to the Republican Party barely two years earlier under GW Bush. And that was absent in Egypt and still absent Tunisia, Algeria and indeed the entire Middle East and the Arab world, except Israel.  

Poverty as Propellant

But let’s be absolutely clear about what this revolutionary fervor boiling over is all about. It is as much about freedoms and liberties as it is about the peoples’ economic conditions in those nations.

Although these streets protests and demonstrations have naturally been dressed up in the sexy garbs of democracy and civil rights and presented to the world as such, their underlying cause is decidedly economic rather than strictly political grievances.

History has shown without a doubt that when people are hurting economically, they tend to express their anger and frustrations through the medium of politics and this is so whether it is in representative or authoritarian regimes. And this is so because man is naturally a political animal and all his activities, including his economics, find expressions through politics. Therefore, the denial of man of this critical medium of expression of himself are the results we have seen throughout history time and again in the both bloody and bloodless revolutions that tore through whole continents and abruptly changing the course of history. That is what is happening at the moment in the Arab and Middle Eastern worlds of monarchical dictatorships. It is simply history repeating itself as it has always done wherever such conditions of active denial of expression of the political animal that is man, exist.

Thus every nation is duty bound to give to its citizens either representative government or in the absence thereof economic opportunities. This appears to be what the Chinese are doing at the moment. The Chinese authorities, while in active denial political rights to their citizens are rapidly accelerating economic development that has kept its huge population suppliant. The Saudis and the Kuwaitis are also on board in this game. All three nations with dictatorial regimes are extremely wealthy with thriving middle class. For that reason, therefore, the wind of change blowing across the Arab world might experience a detour of sorts when it gets close to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. In plain language, the revolution may only achieve marginal impacts in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait but not Iran, Libya and Jordan with much larger poor populations.

Although Egypt had a growing economy with annual GDP growth rate of 6% and had been hailed by Washington, IMF and the World Bank for the success of its economic reform programs, not much of that growth trickled down to the masses and therefore made little or no difference to the economic conditions of the people.

As one Egyptian Samer Shehata, assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University puts it rather graphically in an interview in Democracy Now, Repression and Poverty Underpin the Uprising in Egypt:

“But what all of that masked, what all of that masked, was what was going on at the level of real people and ordinary lives. Real incomes were declining as a result of incredibly high inflation, not as high as in Zimbabwe or Venezuela, but inflation rates of 25, 30 percent, eating away at people’s incomes. Basic commodities, foodstuffs, prices were increasing tremendously. In 2008, about 13 or 14 people, Egyptians, died as a result of conflicts resulting from them waiting in long bread queues, because there wasn’t enough bread, and violence would erupt. People were waiting in line for hours to obtain subsidized bread, which is also one of the bases of this regime, you see.”

Egyptian economy was growing yet the people were not getting the benefits. This is the all too common—jobless growth that even the United States and many developed nations are experiencing at the moment. And countries like Nigeria with 7% growth in GDP that the people are finding hard to believe must draw appropriate lessons from the Egyptian experience.

Inspite of the impressive statistical numbers of economic growth, people were dying while waiting in line to get government’s subsidized bread. That sounds to me like Zimbabwe right there! It sounds to me also like some pensioners dying in Nigeria while waiting in line to collect their government pensions.  

And it gets even worse: Inflation rates in Egypt range from 25-30% on top of food shortages and acute youth unemployment, and up to 40% of the people living below or only slightly above the poverty line? And you then throw in on top of all that, political repression and complete absence of democratic representation? Frankly speaking, the people had no choice at all because they had been driven to the wall with no- where else to go. They either had to go through the wall or turn back to face their tormentors and that meant facing down and throwing out the government altogether.

The choice was clear. They courageously chose the latter, never mind that it has brought back the military, just like the tormented kid who summoned up enough courage to face down the bully in school. For them anybody but Mubarak was good enough at least for the time being including even the military. Mubarak was lucky indeed to have escaped unhurt as his Tunisian counterpart, largely due to his backing by the military. And he was lucky because the protesters were not interested in a bloody revolution to begin with but in seeing him leave and leave them alone to live their lives in freedom and liberty just like others elsewhere in the other parts of the world.

It is clear, therefore, that poverty was at the roots of the uprisings in those parts of the world including the one in Tunisia that started it all considering that the man who lit the fire was a street vendor whose sensibilities had been badly hurt by a female Municipal staffer.

However, the reader might want to know whether revolutions must necessarily occur in all poor nations? And the answer to that would be, not necessarily, and it doesn’t have to. With that said, however, any nation that is truly desirous of enjoying political stability has one of two solutions to pursue earnestly; economic emancipation of its people as earlier indicated, which is a relatively long term proposition, or the institution of representative government, that is democracy, which is a relatively short term proposition. Or, better still, having both for the price of one, which though quite doable, is altogether an extremely difficult proposition. Pursuing both economic emancipation and democracy at the same time is an arduous task not meant for one generation to attain. And for African nations including Nigeria that is struggling to put her best foot forward in the business of democracy, no efforts should be spared in getting the democracy train on an even track even while she struggles to win the war against poverty because the war against poverty cannot even be waged let alone won in an atmosphere of political stability.

Politics is everything precisely because man is a political animal. Give any nation political stability and the rest, including economic emancipation, will be added unto her in due course.

And this, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the case for democracy. And I have to tell you this, it’s a pretty well made out case…because none except dictators would have issues with political freedom and liberties—not necessarily freedom and liberties to perpetrate immorality in the name of democracy. It is freedom and liberties to pursue all legitimate and lawful undertakings in line with the cultural preferences of the peoples because, contrary to what many might think of democracy in third world nations, democracy is not about lawlessness but about the rule of law. There is no greater guarantor of rule of law than democracy, for dictatorship is not the rule of law but the rule of man.    

From the stable of –Cutting-Edge Analytics—More than a Blog, It’s a Learning Experience!

Franklin Otorofani is an Attorney and Public Affairs Analyst.


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