Thursday, February 03, 2011

The Whole World Is Watching

If you’ve been following the continuing situation in Egypt then I believe you understand the title of this post. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, then you’ve been living under a rock.

The past two weeks have been chaotic, and there is no indication that it is going to change anytime soon. And the events that led to President Hosni Mubarak’s announcement earlier this week that he would step down make for interesting conjecture.

Probably the biggest question that comes to my mind is this: what would happen if Mubarak were to step down immediately, as the protesters in the streets want? Would there be an orderly transition of power to someone else? As I see it, I don’t think this would happen. If he indeed were to step down now, I believe the consequences would be catastrophic, at least in the short term. The biggest chunk of fallout would be the incredible power vacuum that would be created as a result of his departure. And, unfortunately, the protesters in the streets in Cairo are not thinking about this. It probably hasn’t occurred to many of them, but it is a reality that somehow has to be factored in to this situation.

There are many as well who, while not necessarily Mubarak supporters, are angry that there is so much protest going on. It has severely disrupted the ability of many of these people to make a living and feed their families. I imagine that if I were in their shoes, I would be unhappy about that as well. But the bottom line of the protests is this specific issue: unemployment in Egypt, nationwide, is approximately 19-20 percent. That, my friends, is way too high. And because of this fact, I can understand why these protests are happening. Sure, there are those who would say that much of the reason for the protests is political (i.e., Mubarak’s regime is repressive), and there may be some truth to that. But I personally believe it all started because of economics.

During my working day yesterday while we were fueling up our truck, I had a chance to chat with the young man who was working behind the counter at the gas station we use. He is an Egyptian national. His English, while heavily accented, is probably better than mine. With this in mind I have no idea why he works there as I suspect he is reasonably well educated. I have ideas, but since I don’t know the facts it’s probably not appropriate for me to speculate. In any case, we were talking and I asked him if he was tracking what is happening, and he told me that he was. He made an interesting statement – his comments, in effect, were that if Mubarak were to just up and leave, it would make a bad situation much worse, likely permanently altering the landscape in his country in a way that would be unacceptable to most of the rest of the world. He also told me that while he is not happy with Mubarak and his regime – after all, this is likely at least partially why he left Egypt and is now selling gasoline in Newton, Massachusetts – it would be utterly devastating if he were to step down with conditions the way they now are. Before we left he made a statement that got my attention: “Watch history – what happened before could easily happen again.”

I think I know what he was referring to with that statement. If you look back at what has been happening over in that part of the world over the last 40 years or so, there have been instances of regime changes that have been difficult for the people in those nations to deal with. Specifically, look at Iran. Now while the Shah was not a benign or beneficent leader of any sort (look at the atrocities committed by his own secret police during his reign), it could be argued with a high degree of success that the Islamic government that followed has not been much better. And Iran is not the only country that has had this sort of thing happen. If you look at other countries in the Middle East and Central Asia, there are more than a few where the government in power has a similar history of autocracy, boiling down to what amounts to abuses of power with negative effects towards its citizens. Much can be said about some African countries having similar problems – Sudan, The Congo, Ethiopia – a few that immediately come to mind. And I won’t even get started about China.

Additionally, neither al-Qaeda nor groups like the Taliban can be factored out, as there is an outside chance that it could be seen by them as an opportunity to at least cause a significant amount of trouble.

Another concern that I haven’t heard too much about in general reporting but has come up in some financial reporting I’ve seen and heard is what could happen with the price of oil. As many of us know, what happens with oil prices almost immediately leads to increases in the prices we pay for gasoline and home heating oil. And more often than not, when the price goes up, once things settle down and the price goes back down, that is not always reflected in what consumers pay. I can see some of this happening again. And I’m sure that when it does, it will be substantial, hurting many people who can ill afford it.

On the subject of news coverage and the media, there have been reports of journalists being harassed and attacked by the police. Today, in fact, there was more of this happening where reporters from European news outlets were ambushed and their equipment taken from them and damaged, although in a few cases it was returned. The attack on Anderson Cooper from CNN, along with his crew, was widely reported yesterday.

He is continuing to report from Cairo. I hope he is able to do so without getting caught up again.

So we continue to watch, and wait, and see what happens over the immediate future. Regardless of the outcome, the whole world indeed will continue to watch, because the things that are happening, like it or not, will indeed have an effect on the rest of us.

Let’s hope, however, that when this is finally resolved, it is done with a minimum amount of damage.


TOTWTYTR said...

A very good post. The gas station guys is right. A sudden abdication by Mubarek would result in chaotic conditions and likely result in a fundamentalist Muslim government as Iran has.

Keep in mind that the Muslim Brotherhood is not a benign social club as some in the media are portraying it. It was in fact the inspiration for Al Qaeda and Hamas.

Speaking of Iran, you can rest assured that they have agents in Egypt trying to foment trouble for any true democratic forces that might be there.

All of that being said, the biggest difference between now and 1979 in Iran is the Internet, cell phones, and social media. That could tip the balance toward a freedom supporting government. At least we can hope.

Susie Hemingway said...

Excellent post Walt.