Sometimes the littlest things make the biggest differences.
A couple of months ago, back about the middle of last December, in a small Tunisian city, a cop who most likely hadn’t gotten an expected graft payment confiscated a fruit vendor’s wheelbarrow full of fruit and his scales with it. The fruit vendor surely knew he was running that risk when he failed to grease all the right palms, because his occupation is not officially permitted in Tunisia. Tolerance for it is achieved through buying the salutary neglect of those responsible for enforcing the law – just like in almost every country in the world in some form on some level, even in the United States.
Deprived of his tools for earning his meager, $75 per week living and faced with the burden of family members to support, in desperation the 27 year-old doused himself with highly flammable liquid and torched himself. After lingering for a little over two weeks in a mostly roasted state, he died.
And that’s how Mohamed Bouazizi, a nearly total unknown from a small, unremarkable backwater, ignited the chain of events that brought down the entrenched dictator of Tunisia together with his entire regime, despite a 23 year long history of service to Big Daddy across the water, the United States.
Although it’s just a little, often forgotten wedge of North Africa, the revolt in Tunisia proved to be the match that lit fires of rebellion all across the Arab world, long soaked by the United States in the highly flammable liquid of political corruption and repressive dictatorship. Sympathy immolations became so common so fast that they burned the world’s attention out, but a blaze of ambition had been ignited in the Arab population from Algeria to Yemen. The world and a couple of smug tools of the US quickly found out just what happy campers a lot of their people weren’t. Global oil markets are shaking with uncertainty. Israel is shocked.
Egypt, with 80 million people, is the most populous Arab nation, and one of the few “friends” Israel has. Over 25 million live in the greater Cairo area where the Great Pyramid of Khufu has been keeping its eye on things for the past 4,500 years, otherwise known as a Very Long Time. In fact, the Great Pyramid is a pointed reminder that Egypt is home to one of the world’s most ancient civilizations, and one of the world’s biggest collections of the ancient artifacts that help all of us humans understand who we are and how we got here. A great many of those artifacts are kept at the national museum in Cairo, a building that was in the process of being sacked by rogue museum employees and Egyptian government provocateurs until pro-democracy demonstrators stopped them.
For the past 29 years Egypt has labored under the US sponsored dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. The fire lit in Tunisia has been kindled into a roaring blaze in Egypt, where demonstrators have expressed unequivocally that their aim is to remove Mubarak from power, hopefully in favor of something more democratic, or failing that, possibly something more theocratic. It’s good to recall what happened in Iran a little over 30 years ago. A popular uprising replaced 26 years of US installed dictatorship with a decidedly anti-American theocracy.
It may not seem like the brightest thing the US has ever done for it to follow the failure of its client dictatorship in Iran with sponsorship of another in Egypt, but at least the US learned a healthy respect for religious enthusiasm. The increasingly more active, more prominent role of Egypt’s conservative Muslim Brotherhood in the protests has been noted with anxiety.
Mubarak just doesn’t get it, either. He’s busy doing a classic Big Fail. Despite hundreds of thousands of voices calling for him to very personally leave, quit, bug-out, scram, and don’t let the door smack him in the butt on the way out, his response was to fire the government and put a scary, CIA-friendly thug in as his second in command. Clearly, Mubarak has a flair for empathy with his people and knows how to soothe heated emotions.
Next, he’s declared he won’t seek re-election when the time comes this Fall. That’s a step in the right direction, the one with the big, flashing red EXIT sign over it, but it’s unlikely to placate the possibly two million who showed up to protest him the very same day. The people of Egypt seem to be running a little short of the patience needed to wait that long. The Egyptian military has been getting real chummy with the protestors, refusing to stop the demonstrations and even allowing the demonstrators to paint “colorful” anti-Mubarak graffiti on their tanks. So, chances are the Egyptian people won’t have to be very patient too much longer, either. Even the US is pointing the way out.
Rumors have already placed Mubarak’s family and an awful lot of suitcases arriving at his luxurious, $8 million estate in England. Maybe Mubarak should try to establish a new dictatorship there before even his family turns on him for being a clueless loser.
The UN thinks food shortages and rapidly spiking food costs played an important role in the Tunisian revolt, possibly in the Egyptian revolt as well, and that failure to address the problem could result in other mobs of angry people around the world demanding significant political change before they starve to death. Miserable wretches that some people are, they refuse to concede that the fat lifestyles, exotic tastes, and sophisticated plans of the global aristocracy are more important than keeping peasants, plebes, and fungible members of the working classes fed.
Speaking of hungry people, the US might want to look at itself in the mirror while the Middle Eastern protests rage in the background. Recent studies show that inequality is worse in the US than in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen where populists are making big changes happen right now. Americans aren’t starving, yet. Or rather, most of them aren’t. America still produces way more food than it can eat and hasn’t reverted to Great Depression era polices of destroying crops in the fields to protect high prices rather than feed starving economic refugees the way John Steinbeck chronicled in the Grapes of Wrath.
But millions of Americans have lost, are losing, and will lose their jobs and homes before the gluttonous financial sector is done explaining how derivatives work on the victims of grossly criminal thieves like John Paulson. Paulson has made many billions betting with those complex financial instruments that whole, huge demographics around the world were going to get shanked by a well-known, expected failure intrinsic to capitalist economics.
In 1992 failure to punish thuggish police for gang beating Rodney King while he lay defenseless on the ground resulted in several days of rioting, looting, arson, and killings in Los Angeles before the National Guard was deployed to put an end to it. Such a little thing, and over a guy who, while not deserving to be beat like a gong with billy clubs and kicked like a flat soccer ball while laying on the ground, was certainly no angel. The skies of LA were dark for days with the smoke from banks and businesses going up in flames while the streets swarmed with looters.
Violence is a terrible way to produce change. In the end it never results in the kind of change really desired, or at least not for long, and wastes an awful lot of potential, resources, and people. The Arabs demanding change in the Middle East have managed to remain remarkably peaceful despite more government violence than they might be expected to tolerate. Over 300 people have probably been killed in Egypt, yet the protests are still focused on non-violent change. It’s a cinch that in gun-crazy, kill them all video game America, expecting a similar level of dedication to peaceful process is unrealistic if very many Americans decide that they are done with waiting patiently for change.
Work for big changes, but tend to the little things. Fires are often a lot easier to start than they are to put out. Repressing a fruit seller sometimes shakes the whole world.