“Let them eat cake!”
From Wikipedia: The quotation, as attributed to Marie Antoinette, was claimed to have been uttered during one of the famines that occurred in France during the reign of her husband Louis XVI. Upon being alerted that the people were suffering due to widespread bread shortages, the Queen is said to have replied, "Then let them eat brioche." Although the phrase was seldom cited by opponents of the monarchy at the time of the French Revolution, it did acquire great symbolic importance in subsequent histories when pro-revolutionary historians sought to demonstrate the obliviousness and selfishness of the French upper-classes at that time. As one biographer of the Queen notes, it was a particularly useful phrase to cite because "the staple food of the French peasantry and the working class was bread, absorbing 50 per cent of their income, as opposed to 5 per cent on fuel; the whole topic of bread was therefore the result of obsessional national interest."
Obviously, then, when citizens’ daily lives are threatened, this can ferment revolution.
I bring this up because this past month, we witnessed what is being dubbed in western media as a major revolution of regime change in Egypt. Protestors, fed up with oppression by the Mubarak government, used Facebook and Twitter to organize protests and give advice on anti-riot gear (hoodies) to protect them from tools commonly used to disrupt demonstrations, such as tear gas. I’ve read some interviews with some of the leaders of the protest where they gave credit to Mark Zuckerberg:
On Friday, activist Wahn Ghonim told CNN that Facebook and the Internet were responsible for the uprising in Egypt. From the interview:
I want to meet Mark Zuckerberg one day and thank him [...] I'm talking on behalf of Egypt. [...] This revolution started online. This revolution started on Facebook. This revolution started [...] in June 2010 when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians started collaborating content. We would post a video on Facebook that would be shared by 60,000 people on their walls within a few hours. I've always said that if you want to liberate a society just give them the Internet. [...]
On my own Facebook page, I see a lot of my friends saying that the people of Egypt have spoken! Their voices have been heard and that we should all stand in solidarity with the Egyptians for throwing off the chains of oppression. Indeed, Twitter feeds talking about the protests and Facebook pages in support of the demonstrators all point to a new era in which we live – that technology can transcend repression and overthrow dictatorial regimes.
I don’t want to be a killjoy, but I’m going to do it anyhow. First of all, I don’t believe that Twitter and Facebook will kick off a chain reaction of events that will succeed in toppling other governments across the middle east (even though there are protests occurring even now in Bahrain and Yemen). Second, I don’t think that Facebook and Twitter even played that much of a role in ousting Egypt’s president Mubarak. Finally, and this is probably the most important, I don’t even think that the people in Egypt succeeded in getting meaningful regime change.
To begin with, we have had revolutions before in 1979 (in Iran) and 1989 (in the former Soviet Union) that were achieved without Facebook and Twitter. Furthermore, the largest protests were organized after the Internet in Egypt was pushed offline. The largest number of protestors arrived in Tahrir Square after the Internet was completely shut down.
Second, and more important, the most powerful and modern segment of Egyptian society is the Egyptian military. They are the real power brokers in Egypt. In 1952, a group led a military coup led by Col. Gamal Abdal Nasser. In 1956, after a power struggle, Nasser took over the office of the presidency. In 1970, he was replaced by Anwar Sadat. Then, in 1982, he was replaced by Hosni Mubarak. It is important to note that these were all military officers. Since 1952, the same segment has held power – the military. Now, Mubarak is 82 years old and needed a successor anyhow, and he wanted to name his son Gamal. His son was western trained and was reform-minded, but he was not a military man. To the military, the real power broker, this was completely unacceptable. They were resisting it and looked elsewhere for a new president. Thus, when the protestors started demonstrating against Mubarak, they wanted the same thing that the military wanted – a replacement for Mubarak. To that end, they eventually engineered a military coup a week ago and now Egypt has an open office of the president.
But the reality is that the Egyptian regime is still there, still controlled by old generals. They are committed to the same foreign policy as the man they forced out of office. They have promised democracy, but it is not clear that they mean it. So, before we in the west start getting too giddy about meaningful change having been accomplished, it wouldn’t have amounted to much had the protestors goals been the same as the power brokers that run the country. That’s why the Twitter revolution in Iran after their elections in 2009 didn’t go anywhere.
The Huffington Post has a good article on why now these protests erupted:
In Tunisia, it was Mohammed Bouazizi, a food vendor in the city of Sidi Bouzid, who, after years of taunting and abuse by the police, immolated himself in rage and frustration, and ignited the storm that subsequently erupted. But it was the price of food that had changed Mohammed Bouazizi's world, for the beatings were a regular feature of his life. And so too in Egypt, it is the price of basic foodstuffs--that consume as much as half of a typical family's income -- rather than the denial of basic rights that marks a material change in peoples lives.
Food prices are not new as an instigating factor in popular uprisings, dating at least back to the American and French revolutions, and the price of bread can bring more people to the streets than the noblest of words. The ultimate indignity and humiliation heaped upon Mohammed Bouazizi was not the beatings that he grew to accept, but rather -- faced with forces beyond his control -- it was his inability to provide for his family, to fulfill that most basic responsibility.
If you look at the below chart, it is scaled to $100 at the start of the chart. I have chosen the etf DBA, the Powershares Agriculture Fund which tracks a basket of grains and sugars.
In July, the index is at 100. Today, it is at 140, a 40% increase in 7 months. That’s a lot of food inflation, and for a population like Egypt who lives on only a small amount of wages per day, once food prices go up you start to get pretty mad at your government. It has occurred in the past (like during the French revolution) and in my view, it’s what set Tunisia and Egypt over the edge as well. It wasn’t Twitter and Facebook that got things going, it was the basic human need to satisfy hunger.
Indeed, if this was the tipping point, and if Egypt is still under the same mechanics post Mubarak, then nothing will change in Egypt. People’s lives won’t be any different next month than they were last month. That’s kind of the tragedy in this because in the west, we think that the people of Egypt won.
I beg to differ. We’ll only know in several months or years when we can actually step back and observe real change.