The World After Sidi Bouzid – Sunday column, February 13, 2011
[NB: This column was written on Wednesday, February 16, 2011]
When the policewoman slapped the young fruit-seller on the street in Sidi Bouzid a week before Christmas, she was not thinking of Hosni Mubarak, the Pharaoh of Egypt. Nevertheless her action set off an tsunami of grief and fury that is quickly transforming the Middle East, and will probably wash Mubarak clean out of Cairo.
Mohamed Bouazizi, 26 years old, was desperately trying to support his family by illegally selling fruit from a push-cart. After the policewoman seized his cart and insulted him, he went to the regional governor seeking redress. Rebuffed, he bought some paint thinner and set himself on fire. His death triggered a push-and-shove of protests and repression that ultimately ended the 23-year reign of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali – and soon spread to Jordan, Yemen and other countries, particularly Egypt.
As I write, the Egyptian protests have clearly shaken the Mubarak government, but the regime clings to power. Still, things will never be the same. The Egyptian people, starving for change, have lost their fear. Those brave women in their head-scarves, those stubble-bearded youths in their T-shirts, the young fathers carrying their babies in Tahrir Square – sooner or later, those valiant people will win. As Gwynne Dyer recently noted, autocratic regimes depend on fear, and “when people lose their fear, the regime is toast.”
For some people – Dyer among them – these events are reminiscent of the 1989 uprisings that shattered the Soviet empire. I’m not so sure. I think we may be seeing something quite different — the first demographic and environmental uprisings of the 21st century.
While populations in the developed world are more or less stable, in the Third World they are soaring. In 1950, the population of Yemen, for example, was just 4.3 million. It quadrupled by the end of the century, and is projected to reach 48 million by 2025. The Yemeni capital, Sana’a, grew from 55,000 to more than a million people in just 20 years. As a result, it may be the first capital city in the world to run out of water.
Furthermore, this is an explosion of impoverished young people. More than half of Yemen’s population today is under the age of 15, and 43% of the population lives on less than $2 a day. And Yemen, like Tunisia, like Jordan, like Egypt, is not exactly bursting with opportunities for young people. The official unemployment rate is 35%.
The vent for all that frustrated energy has always been Europe, to which Middle Eastern youth migrated in great numbers. But Europe closed its doors when the recession hit. So the young are trapped in their own impoverished countries, gazing through their TVs and cell phones into a faraway world of unattainable wealth and comfort. With Facebook and Twitter, thousands can instantly share their frustrations. Moods and movements spread at the speed of light.
Places like Yemen are tubs of gunpowder, waiting for a match. The resulting chain of explosions should blow away a whole phalanx of sclerotic despots and open a new era of peace, prosperity and democracy for the Arab world, changing the region as profoundly as Latin America and eastern Europe have been changed.
But can new governments meet such expectations? Governments can allocate resources, but they can’t magically conjure up enough water, food and jobs for additional tens of millions of people. When populations are mushrooming and resources are steady or declining, governments can be overwhelmed by unmanageable catastrophes, leaving their countries sliding into Somalian violence and anarchy.
And catastrophes are looming. Climate scientists believe that these very countries are likely to suffer the worst consequences of global warming, including severe shortages of food and water. Their people could be ever more desperate to migrate to a Europe that is already closing its doors to them.
In this perilous situation, Middle East nations need leadership, diplomacy, self-discipline and luck. The first essential step is democracy, with its inherent promise that decisions will be made by the people affected, and that all citizens will be treated equally. The new democracies may not succeed, but the dying autocracies have already failed. That’s the message from Sidi Bouzid and Cairo, and today it’s a message of hope.
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