Shortly after the start of the New Year, Reuters reported that “Millions of Pakistanis are growing frustrated at widespread corruption, power cuts, poverty and rising inflation – problems that risk pushing more young men to join militants groups in the South Asian country of 170 million.” In that atmosphere, the country’s government decided last year, as part of an economic “reform” drive to raise the price of gas and other fuels.
In the words of the New York Times, the regime chose to raise fuel prices nine percent effective January 1 “as the fastest and easiest way to increase revenues, before it struggled with more difficult tax reforms.” The result was predictable; there were protests. The newspaper Dawn reported on the “resentment shown by political parties, civil society organizations and people across the country.”
“The increase in fuel prices was deeply unpopular, hitting the poor hardest, and fraught with political risks of its own,” Salman Masood and J. David Goodman reported in the Times from Islamabad.
A major party withdrew from the governing coalition and the government collapsed. On January 7, the government rescinded the price hike.
Into this mess stepped the U.S. State Department.
Turns out U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton tried to convince the Pakistanis to retain the unpopular policy decision. She says three days before the government dropped the price hike she met with Pakistan’s ambassador, Hussain Haqqani, at the State Department in Washington and told him it would be a “mistake” to do so. “We believe that the government of Pakistan must reform its economic laws and regulations, including those that affect fuel and its cost,” Clinton later told reporters. “We have made it clear… that we think it is a mistake to reverse the progress that was being made to provide a stronger economic base for Pakistan and we will continue to express that opinion.”
It was a pretty heavy handed intrusion into Pakistani affairs but the U.S. is the country’s main source of aid and much of it is funneled through the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and both are unhappy about Islamabad’s refusal to adopt their prescriptions. The IMF has refused to release the second half of an already granted loan pending the government agreeing to the “reform.” Then again, Pakistan is paying dearly in blood and resources for its involvement in Washington’s “war on terrorism” and is being pressured to contribute even more to the senseless war in neighboring Afghanistan. However, leaving aside what business it was for Clinton to be so publicly interfering in Pakistani politics and economic policy, the episode and what followed in places many miles away from Pakistan speak volumes about the international situation in 2011.
Skip ahead to January 13 to the Sudan where police brutally tied to crush student protests against proposed cuts in subsidies in petroleum products and sugar.
The Sudanese protests came against the background of the secession referendum then underway in the south of the country that is expected to split the country in to. “It is not about the referendum – there is almost no referendum in the north, it is for their protection against social protests after increasing the prices,” opposition politician Yasir Arman told Reuters. “The north is feeling that the government has betrayed all the dreams of having a new society, of a different route that could have kept the unity of Sudan.”
The Sudanese student protests came as the world’s attention was focused on Algeria and Tunisia with the president of the latter being literally driven from the country by the upheaval, ending his 23 years of dictatorial rule. Ironically, two days before Tunisian President Zine El Abidine fled Tunis (probably with a big sack of gold), the Christian Science Monitor said, “While the protests are unlikely to bring down any governments in the near future, they portend trouble ahead if leaders who have ruled with a strong fist for decades try to keep a tighter lid on discontent instead of creating a vent for anger.”
In Algeria, protestors took the streets after the prices for essential food items such as flour, cooking oil and sugar doubled over the previous two weeks.
“First it was Morocco, then Tunisia, and now it is Algeria’s turn,” said Aljereeza last week. “Hundreds of Algerians have taken to the streets of the capital Algiers, some of them shouting “Bring us sugar.”
And then it was the Sudan and then Ma’an, Jordan and then the capital, Amman.
According to AFP, almost 3,000 people staged a sit-in in front of the Jordanian parliament building Sunday protesting the government’s economic policy and that trade unionists, members of left-wing parties and Islamists took part in the demonstration.
The riots that erupted in the small Jordanian city of Ma’an are reported to have come in response of a local ethnic conflict in which two people were killed. Angry young men are reported to have attacked governmental buildings and offices and cars and stores and burned tires. A witness told the Jordanian Times, “The angry youths were shouting that they do not believe in the system and that was why they were destroying public properties.”
“They are unhappy with the rising cost of food and, what they say is a lack of opportunity in the country,” said Al Jazeera as the protests spread through the region. “They are directing their anger at the government – they do not understand why an oil rich country is unable to offer a decent life to its people.”
One problem is that the prices of many basic commodities are rising across the globe. But the effect is uneven because in the poorer countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, people spend a greater portion of their already meager incomes on food and fuel than those of us in developed world.
The United Nations’ world food price index rose 32 percent from June to December. Much of it can be traced to poor grain harvests – particularly grain – and weather-related problems. These factors and an increase in market speculation have pushed prices close to the crisis levels that have previously provoked shortages and riots in poor countries. “We are at a very high level,” said Abdolreza Abbassian, an economist for the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. “These levels in the previous episode led to problems and riots across the world.”
Another factor contributing to the upheavals is that the economic crisis that was spawned in the U.S. and today convulses Europe, has had a spillover effect. On January 11, the Times observed that “the economic malaise that has gripped southern Europe has spread here, sending unemployment and public resentment skyrocketing.”
Observers point to another, perhaps most significant, factor driving the protests: the stubborn and increasing economic inequality in these countries. While most attention has been directed at the very real problem of unemployed college educated youths, President Ben Ali’s departure came after the students were joined in the streets by workers and young professionals. A general strike was called the day Ben Ali fled.
In a January 6 statement, the leadership of the Algerian Workers Party (PT) called for urgent measures to overcome the crisis and “would also put a brake on all who seek to ride the wave of legitimate anger provoked among the Algerian citizens – who are worn out having endured constant increases in the prices of basic commodities – to direct this anger toward nefarious political ends.”
“Because the situation is serious and because the interests of the nation must come first, the secretariat of the Political Bureau considers that the anger of young people raises the urgent need for real solutions to the unemployment problem by creating good full-time jobs, in order to combat the despair that is generated by social precariousness,” the Party’s statement read.
“These four events hitting at roughly the same time, for all their differences, seem to crystallize a long-developing sense that these regimes have failed to meaningfully address this relentlessly building wave of troubles.” Marc Lynch, George Washington University associate professor of Political Science and International Affairs. “For years, both Arab and Western analysts and many political activists have warned of the urgent need for reform as such problems built and spread. Most of the Arab governments have learned to talk a good game about the need for such reform, while ruthlessly stripping democratic forms of any actual ability to challenge their grip on power. Economic reforms, no matter how impressive on paper, have increased inequality, undermined social protections, enabled corruption, and failed to create anything near the needed numbers of jobs. Western governments have tried through a wide variety of means to help promote reform, but not really democracy since that would risk having their allied regimes voted out of power – the core hypocrisy at the heart of American democracy promotion efforts of which every Arab is keenly aware. Obama talking more about democracy in public, which seems to be the main concern of many of his critics, isn’t really going to help.”
That hasn’t kept Washington from trying.
In a speech last week at the Forum for the Future conference in Doha, Qatar, Hilary Clinton addressed the problem of young people in the region, noting that “people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order.” She called for “political reforms that will create the space young people are demanding, to participate in public affairs and have a meaningful role in the decisions that shape their lives.” What she didn’t address was the U.S. policy in the region up until now.
It should be noted that, with the exception of the Sudan recently, the dramatic protests have occurred in what U.S. political figures and the mass media refer to as “moderate” countries. Each has received generous U.S. aid and military and security coordination. During the Cold War this meant all-too-often successful effort to physically crush the left, trade union and progressive forces and this preserve the unequal economic relations that serve the interests of multinational corporations and the governing elites. Recently they have been placated in the interest of the “war on terror.”
Last Saturday, after offering a litany of deprivation and repression visited upon the country, the Financial Times noted, “Despite all this, Tunisia under Mr. Ben Ali has often been touted as a model of stability and prudent economic management. The country opened up to foreign investment and Mr. Ben Ali encouraged the development of a diversified industrial base supplying European markets.”
“The most imminent threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East, however, is not war; it is revolution,” a Washington Post editor Jackson Diehl wrote last week.
Diehl went on:
“The violence has already migrated to Algeria, and Arab media are full of speculation of where the “Tunisia scenario” will appear next: Egypt? Jordan? Libya? All those countries are threatened by rapidly rising global prices for food and fuel; the United Nations warned last week of a ‘food price shock.’ All have large numbers of restless, unemployed youth. And all are governed by repressive regimes that not only have refused to embrace political reforms in the past decade but have cracked down harder on domestic opponents since Obama took office. It’s hard not to attribute that trend at least in part to the administration’s relaxed attitude toward reform and its reluctance to defend human rights and democracy.”
The question before the Obama Administration is how to respond to the “Jasmine Revolution’ and how to move forward with the President’s promised “new beginning” in relations with that part of the world. To do something meaningful it must go beyond lecturing the local establishment leaders about human rights and political plurality. It must be to move to respond positively to the aspiration of the kids with the rocks in the streets. It should not involve telling the Pakistanis how to price gas.
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