Tunisia and Egypt: Some Common Denominators

As I offhandedly mentioned yesterday, my biggest problem with the claim that global warming is a contributing factor to Egypt’s uprising isn’t that it’s parasitically opportunistic.  It’s that it undermines serious, legitimate debate on the linkages between climate change, demographics, environmental degradation, poverty, and sociopolitical factors, such as built-up frustration over government repression.

And that larger, more nuanced debate, as it relates to Tunisia and Egypt, is on smart display in this thoughtful essay by Vicken Cheterian. (I’d like to see environmental security scholars step up to the plate and offer some additional analysis.) Sorting out which underlying causes are most responsible is not easy, writes Cheterian:

The problem is a lack of hard understanding. Research on the linkages between environment degradation, resource depletion and political systems is new. For example, it is not clear whether there is a relation between Arab demographic growth, new urban environments, the emergence of marginalised but educated youth, and the rise of specific types of Islamic militancy.

It seems to me that a more productive debate at the moment might result if greater attention were paid to a common thread pieced together from the seismic events in Tunisia and Egypt. So I went back and reviewed a fair amount of press coverage and expert commentary from the past week. See if you can pick out the main themes from this admittedly random and arbitrary sampling:

Jonathan Wright, former Cairo bureau chief for Reuters, writes:

If one week is a long time in politics, one month can bring as much change as a whole generation.  The spark struck in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid in December first brought down President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who now languishes in Saudi exile. In a chain reaction, the sudden and unexpected collapse of authoritarian rule in Tunisia breathed new hope into opponents of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who have struggled for years to muster mass support for their democratic agenda.

Egypt and Tunisia had much in common ““ high youth unemployment, brutal repression by  police thuggery, economic growth that stubbornly refused to trickle down, and paralyzed political systems based on ruling parties that tried to give a facade of respectability to crony capitalism.

Reuters, Wed Jan 26:

Emboldened by the Tunisian uprising and frustrated by corruption, poverty and repression, protesters in Egypt have demanded that the 82-year-old Mubarak step down.

Steven Cook, Wed Jan 26:

Clearly, the many thousands of people in Tahrir Square today/tonight don’t take the regime’s claims about reform seriously.  The press has focused on economic grievances””perhaps taking their cues from government spokesmen””but the only demands I heard tonight were political.  The young men and (some) women in Tahrir want freedom and liberation from Hosni Mubarak, his family, and the National Democratic Party.

The Economist writes that Egypt is

often considered a powder keg. Nearly half of its people live on less than $2 a day. Most of them are under 30. The mood is often resentful and sour. The ruling party is arrogant, nepotistic and corrupt. It allows other parties to exist only provided they do not pose a real threat. The press is afforded a measure of freedom, as a safety-valve, but is quickly choked off if it steps out of line. A general election late last year was blatantly rigged, even by the low standards of the past. Open politics is paralysed.

Anthony Shadid, NYT:

The Middle East is being drawn together by economic woes and a shared resentment that people have been denied dignity and respect. From Saudi Arabia to Egypt and beyond, many say, there is a broad sense of failure and frustration.

And finally, let me return to the analysis by Cheterian, who begins with the story of Mohamad Bouazizi, the Tunisian who sparked the initial wave of protests with his self-immolation. Cheterian concludes that the complex picture of all the possibly interrelated factors ascribed to the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt gain clarity “at the level of the individual, and of many individuals acting together.” He writes:

In Tunisia, Mohamad Bouazizi did not rebel because he did not find a job reflecting his ambitions and education. He did not burn himself when a police officer confiscated the fruits and vegetables he was selling at a street-corner on the pretext he had no permit. But when he went to file a complaint to seek justice, his demand was rejected. It was this feeling of injustice that led Mohamed Bouazizi to his desperate act.

The common denominators to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt seem apparent enough. Those who always have global warming at the forefront of their minds might want to make some mental space for consideration of the frustrations and hopes now bubbling over in the Middle East. It makes for a fuller perspective.

8 Responses to “Tunisia and Egypt: Some Common Denominators”

  1. […] In the environmental community, some have tried to finger high food prices, and even — as a contributor to food costs — global warming. […]

  2. Menth says:

    I’d like to point out some interesting data. Firstly, take a look at the observed atmospheric co2 levels from Mauna Loa since 1960:
    Next, take a look at this graph:
    Now I’m sure the anti-science-pro-pollution-denialists would love to pick apart the second graph but the fact of the matter stands: co2 = bad things.

  3. harrywr2 says:

    In order to remain a dictator one needs to control the flow of information or have a huge, loyal security force.
    If one reads the thousands of documents at the US Army Training and Doctrine Command a ration of 20 soldiers per thousand residents is the required for to ‘suppress’ a civil war or govern without the consent of the people. Some estimates put the required number of soldiers at 75/1000.
    The population of Egypt is 80 million. To suppress the ‘will of the people’ one would need an Army of 1.6 million. The Egyptian Armed forces are only 500,000.
    The ‘Emperor’ has no Security Clothes.
    Tunisia was the model.
    Without the ability to suppress communications it is impossible to continue with the illusion that the security forces are adequate to suppress the will of the people.
    There is a reason the King of Jordan just  fired his entire cabinet.
    Dictators ‘R’ Us are short on security wardrobe. In the age of cell phones and internet it is impossible to cover up this fact.
    It’s a wonderful time to be alive, witnessing the end of ‘Dictators ‘R Us’ at the hands of people armed with cell phones.

  4. Lewis says:

    I’ve sort of avoided your, in my opinion, deservedly, well respected blog, partly because I’ve sometimes found myself embarrasingly getting carried away. A self-denieing ordinance. So, it amuses me, on returning, at this profoundly historacle moment, to find you defending the obviously ‘common sense’ thesis that it has nothing to do with global warming!
    None of us, at this present moment, can get a ‘true’ handle on what is going on but cirtainly what is in the mix is lack of development and material and therefore enviromental well being. However, to treat any of these as essential causes is to have an extremely superficial and patronising view of human beings, something that some in the Establishments of the West suffer from, especailly when it comes to their ‘fear and loathing’ of the Arab ‘Street’!
    What is demanded is freedom, the right to live under a self-consistant and civilized law and this is demanded not by a rabble of ‘dangerous islamists’ but by a new, profoundly, highly educated and civilized class. Granted these and the rest will follow.
    Just some thoughts.

  5. Lewis says:

    To put that clearer: what is happening here is the outward expression of profound historicle, social changes that have been brewing for decades, are as much global as local, political as meterial and would need a whole book (and much more) to do them justice. But this is not, let us say, a Tunisian, Egyptian event, an event of the Levant etc. It is a global event, merely happening to foccus, for the moment, on the birthplace of civilization. It cirtainly has nothing to with climate change!

  6. J Bowers says:

    The Oil Drum has an alalysis. http://www.theoildrum.com/node/7425
    One comment there: “Even the language here conveys how essential bread is. Egyptians alone in the Arab world call it “aish,” Arabic for “life.” It’s one of the few affordable staples in the country — costing the equivalent of $0.01 per round loaf.”
    It only takes a spark to light the tinder.

  7. Naima Nour says:

    Tunisia and the Jasmine Revolution. I indeed agree that “Injustice”is the basic motivation for the uprising of the peoples of Tunisia starting with deceased Mohamed Bouazizi. The others unseen motivations played a bigger role in the earthquake in Tunisia.

    1) The wikileaks was the main stimulus
    2) The control upon technology and the isolation of the national websites that were shut down by the expert Tunisian in technology.
    3) The control of facebook, twitter and the recording of the daily events on You Tube and Daily motion.
    4) The feedback of the former Tunisian president running away, the peoples and the world especially the USA and its image as role model of freedom and democracy.
    5) The panic of the government.
    6) The hunting of the corrupted and thieves of trabelsi family.
    7) Egypt is walking through its revolution with Tunisians walking them by twitter, sms, facebook and so on.
    8) The Arab world is waking up and imposing their will to democracy and dignity. Their voice will cross deserts, mountains and satellites to reach the world.
    9) The courage of the fear to die for freedom and democracy.

  8. JohnB says:

    I find it amazing that some commentators can’t see what is in front of them. Tunisians, Egyptians and others in the modern arab world are looking at the governments and freedoms available in the developed nations and want those same freedoms for themselves.

    Educated people with access to the world via the net are well aware that in other places you can get redress from unjust police actions, the police protect you and don’t oppress you and most of all, a government that doesn’t look after its people goes away at the next election.

    Why is it so surprising to some that the oppressed people want those freedoms too? Why look for another, deeper cause than the one that the protestors themselves are openly declaring?

    I can only assume some bizarre form of cultural racism based on the belief that somehow the arab world “isn’t ready for” or “can’t fully understand” Democracy and what it entails. I really can’t see any other to deny that the basic reason for the demonstrations is a desire for freedom, democracy and a just form of government. The same desires that led to the development of the free and stable democracies of the West.

    And with tongue in cheek.

    @#2 Menth. As always with climate it is good to look at the underlying raw data. When checked it is obvious that you’ve made a very basic mistake in your second graph. Your point 4 is used “upside down” as Plan 9 from Outer Space is a true classic and should not be included in a list of “Bad Things Happening”.

    Inverting the data to match your preconcieved notions is an affront to the scientific method. The originator of the data, that well known Professor of Filmology, Ed Wood, thought the film was great and you are ignoring and distorting his opinion on this.

    It is this sort of gratuitous massaging and misrepresentation of data that is bringing the whole climate debate into disrepute and ridicule.:)

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