Monday, February 14, 2011

Momentous Start to 2011

Early last year, I wrote a post that said basically that I was not a psychic and could only hope that good things were going to happen during the year. Shortly thereafter, the Haiti earthquake struck and some time afterwards the same happened in Chile – and before we reached the end of the first semester came the BP oil spill. I guess that if I reviewed every year looking for extraordinary events, I would come across a number of those natural catastrophes and political coups. But 2010 had a particularly momentous start – and so did 2011 with the Tucson shooting and the political upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA).

Both were unexpected. Despite the fact that weapons are ubiquitous in the US, particularly in certain parts of the country, mass shootings remain rare and are mostly limited to folks unhappy with their ex-employers often and going back to shoot ex-colleagues randomly. The random nature is always what makes those events so extraordinarily upsetting to most. You hate your old boss and get to the point where you want to kill him or her. Well, shoot the bastard and go to jail for life – but why shoot the folks around him/her? The Tucson shooting was a huge shock in the US because of the consensual figure of Gabrielle Giffords and of the increasing polarization of the political debate in the country. Without implying that the shooter was inspired by some extreme rhetoric he heard on TV – and Obama refused to go there in all his comments, including in his landmark speech at the victims’ funeral service – there is a broad consensus that the level of anger and aggressiveness in US politics is near or at an all-time high, at least considering the last 40 to 50 years.

In America, people strongly relate to individual stories, so with the media massively reporting on the stories of those who died in Tucson (the young girl, the legislative aide, the judge, etc.), the tragedy was perceived as even more dramatic. And there were the heroes too, the one who saved Giffords by attending to her wounds right away or those who somehow tackled the shooter and managed to get him to stop shooting.

Individual stories are also what made last year’s contestation in Iran so striking, particularly for the millions who saw the young woman Neda that was shot during a demonstration die on camera. It is also how the Jasmine Revolution started in Tunisia. A young street vendor who was asked to leave his usual spot by the police for no good reason chose instead to die by immolation (he burned himself alive).

The Middle East has been characterized by strong regimes and is the region in the world where democracy is most lacking. Lebanon is the only country in the region (outside Israel) where there is a regular election cycle and a true multi-party system. Masses in MENA lack a voice (how to express discontent in a country where strong rulers see dissent as a risk to their own power) and lack economic opportunities (there are huge disparities between the rich and the poor and the fruits of economic growth continue to be very unevenly distributed). This is the best recipe to create a generation (two generations by now) of disenfranchised, angry, and disheartened folks, especially young people.

Finally Tunisia’s people took the matter in its own hands and said to its ruler who had enjoyed tremendous political and economic power that it was not going to take it anymore. Ben Ali and his partner Trabelsi controlled the majority of the Tunisian economy and had stakes in all the ventures of importance. Their extended families largely benefited from that incredible position of power.

In Egypt the rise in food staple prices was the trigger for the protests – there had been protests in late 2010 already. As is the case in Tunisia, nothing significant economically could happen in Egypt without Mubarak clan’s involvement. The political opposition did not have a proper voice either.

Western countries have played a controversial role over the past 30 years, not doing much to promote democracy with dictatorial regimes such as Tunisia and Egypt because those countries were stable and considered a “line of defense” against Islamic extremism. Western nations’ nightmare came to reality in 1992 when Islamic extremists won the elections in Algeria – the then regime preferred to cancel the elections and stage an actual coup all the while Western nations stayed put for the most part. A bloody 10+-year civil war ensued.

The fear of the rise of an Islamist regime among Western nations and in Israel remains today. And their concern is not unfounded. But the current situation also presents an amazing opportunity for those nations. They should:

-- Provide whatever assistance that Tunisia and Egypt’s new governments and others in the region will request to carry out more equitable economic programs, and

-- Stay vigilant that aspirations to democracy expressed by the people are not ignored while admitting that a transition to democracy may not be immediate and easy.

2011, Year of Liberation.