Thursday, January 27, 2011

Two excellent articles on Tunisia and Egypt

Things are happening at lightening pace. In some sense, these are exciting times in the Middle East. In preparation for tomorrow's (Friday) protests, some of the social media sites have already been blocked in Egypt. There are also protests in Yemen also - but those don't appear to be driven by the same demographics (educated, middle-class) as in Tunisia and Egypt.

In the mean time, I wanted to highlight two articles on trying to make sense of the current situation. The first one is by Roger Cohen on Facebook and Arab Dignity, and the other is by Asef Bayat on A new Arab street in post-Islamist times.

Cohen is currently in Tunisia and traces the events that started the Tunisian uprising. He does a fantastic job of tracing the story of the street vendor who set himself on fire (it turns out, he doesn't even have a high-school diploma). But Cohen finds this uprising to be the first leader-less revolution - or he ascribes the leadership to Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. Here are his key observations:

First, the old nostrum goes that it’s either dictators or Islamic fundamentalists in the Arab world because they’re the only organized forces. No, online communities can organize and bite.
Second, those communities have no formal ideology but their struggle is to transform humiliation into self-esteem.
Third, cyber-uprisings can go either way: Iran hovered on a razor’s edge in 2009, Tunisia’s regime fell in 2011. In both societies the gulf between the authorities and young wired societies was huge. The difference is probably the degree of sustained brutality a dictatorship can muster.
Fourth, Internet freedom is no panacea. Authoritarian regimes can use it to identify dissidents; they can try to suppress Facebook. But it’s empowering to the repressed, humiliated and distant — and so a threat to the decayed Arab status quo.
Read the full article here.

And Asef Bayat looks at some of the sociological reasons behind the protests. He starts with the new information technology - it is hard to deny its role in all this - and then gets to other reasons:

More recently, the ‘Cedar Revolution,' a grassroots movement of some 1.5million Lebanese from all walks of life demanding a meaningful sovereignty,democracy, and an end to foreign meddling, resulted in the withdrawal of Syrianforces from Lebanon in 2005. The Iranian Green wave, a pervasive democracymovement that emerged following the 2009 fraudulent Presidential elections, hasserved as a prelude to what are now the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, and thecurrent uprising in the streets of Egypt. These are all breaks from traditionalArab politics in that they project a new post-Islamist and post-ideologicalstruggle which combine the concerns for national dignity with social justiceand democracy. These movements are pluralistic in constituencies, pursue newways of mobilizing (such as boycott campaigns, cyber-activities and protestart) and are weary of the traditional party politics.
Why this change? Certainly there is the long-building youth bulge and thespread of new information technology (Internet, e-mail, Facebook, YouTube,Twitter, and especially satellite TV like Al Jazeera). Frustratedyouth are now rapidly moving to exploit these new resources to assertthemselves and to mobilize. For instance, Egyptian youth used Facebook tomobilize some 70,000 mostly educated youth who made calls for freespeech, economic welfare, and the elimination of corruption.Activists succeeded in organizing street protests, rallies and morespectacularly initiating a general strike on April 6, 2008 to support the strikingtextile workers. The January 25 mass demonstration in Egypt was primarilyorganized through Facebook and Twitter. These modes and technologies ofmobilization seem to play a crucial role in the Tunisian uprising.
But there are deeper reasons as well:
Thesocial structure throughout the region is changing rapidly. There is anexplosion of mass educational institutions which produce higher levelsof literacy and education, thus enhancing the class of educated populace.At the same time, these societies are rapidly becoming urban. By far morepeople live in the cities than in rural areas (just below Central and EasternEurope). A creeping urbanity is permeating into the traditional rural societies-- there are modern divisions of labor, modern schools, expanding serviceworks, electrification, and especially a modern communications system(phone lines, cars, roads, and minibuses) which generate time-space compressionbetween the ‘urban' and ‘urban' worlds. The boundary between ‘urban' and‘rural' is becoming increasingly blurred and ‘rural' populations are no longerrural in the traditional sense.
But a key change is the emergence of a ‘middle class poor' (with significantpolitical implications) at the expense of the decline of the more traditionalclasses and their movements -- notably, peasant organizations, cooperativemovements and trade unions. As peasants have moved to the city from thecountryside, or lost their land to become rural day laborers, the social basisof peasant and cooperative movements has eroded. The weakening of economicpopulism, closely linked to structural adjustment, has led to the decline ofpublic sector employment, which constituted the core of trade unionism. Throughreform, downsizing, privatization and relocation, structural adjustment hasundermined the unionized public sector, while new private enterprises linked tointernational capital remain largely union-free. Although the state bureaucracyremains weighty, its underpaid employees are unorganized, and a largeproportion of them survive by taking second or third jobs in the informalsector. Currently, much of the Arab work force is self-employed. Manywage-earners work in small enterprises where paternalistic relations prevail.On average, between one third and one half of the urban work force are involvedin the unregulated, unorganized informal sector. Lacking institutional channelsto make their claims, streets become the arena for the expression of discontent.
And add education and unemployment to the mix:
And all these are happening against the background of expanding educationalinstitutions, especially the universities which produce hundreds of thousandsof graduates each year. They graduate with new status, information, andexpectations. Many of them are the children of comfortable parents or thetraditional rural or urban poor. But this new generation is different fromtheir parents in outlook, exposure, social standing, and expectations. Unlikethe post-colonial socialist and statist modernization era that elevated thecollege graduates as the builders of the new nation, the current neoliberalturn has failed to offer most of them an economic status that could match theirheightened claims and global dreams. They constitute the paradoxical class of‘middle class poor' with high education, self-constructed status, wider worldviews, and global dreams who nonetheless are compelled -- by unemploymentand poverty -- to subsist on the margins of neoliberal economy as casual,low paid, low status and low-skilled workers (as street vendors, sales persons,boss boys or taxi drivers), and to reside in the overcrowded slums and squattersettlements of the Arab cities. Economically poor, they still fantasize aboutan economic status that their expectations demand -- working in IT companies,secure jobs, middle class consumption patterns, and perhaps migration to theWest.
The ‘middle class poor' are the new proletariat of the Middle East, who arevery different from their earlier counterpart -- in their college education,knowledge of the world, expectations that others have of them, and witha strong awareness of their own deprivation. Muhammad Bouazizi, the streetvendor who ignited himself and a revolution in Tunisia represented this ‘middleclass poor.' The politics that this class pursued in the 1980s and 1990s wasexpressed in Islamism as the most formidable opposition to the secularundemocratic regimes in the region. But Islamism itself has faced a crisis inrecent years, not least because it is seriously short of democracy. With theadvent of post-Islamist conditions in the Muslim Middle East, the ‘middle classpoor' seems to pursue a different, post-Islamist, trajectory.
Though, he is less hopeful of a deeper change in places other than Tunsia:
Yet in the longer term their efforts may not be enough. The structuralchanges (educational development, public role of women, urban expansion, newmedia and information venues, next to deep inequalities and corruption) arelikely to make these developmentalist authoritarian regimes -- whether Libya,Saudi Arabia, Iran or Egypt -- more vulnerable. If dissent is controlled byrent-subsidized welfare handouts, any economic downturn and weakening ofprovisions is likely to spark popular outrage.
At stake is not just jobs and descent material welfare; at stake is alsopeople's dignity and pursuit of human and democratic rights. As we have seen sopowerfully in Tunisia, the translation of collective dissent into collectiveaction and sustained campaign for change has its own intriguing and oftenunpredictable dynamics. This explains why we keep getting surprised inthis part of the world -- revolutions happen where we do not expect, andthey do not happen where we do. After all, who sensed the scent of Jasmine inthe backstreets of Tunisia just a few weeks ago?

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