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Planet Earth

Tunisia and Egypt: Some Common Denominators

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorFebruary 1, 2011 11:46 PM

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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.

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