It took decades of inaction, repression, and neglect to produce the mass demonstrations we’re seeing in Egypt. The only real surprise is that something on this scale didn’t happen years earlier.
The gospel of deregulation, privatization, and coddling ruling elites with tax breaks and subsidies, while starving the workers and the poor of basic social services through austerity, has once again created conditions so unbearable that millions of people are taking to the streets in protest. Like Latin America in the 1990s and 2000s, now North African Arab societies are buckling under the failed neo-liberal policies of the “Washington Consensus.” Democracy is breaking out in Tunisia and Egypt not because of U.S. actions in the Middle East, but despite them.
IMF austerity measures and years of failed neo-liberal economic policies led Egyptian ruling elites dating back to the late 1970s to balance their books on the backs of the poor. Thirty-four years ago, in January 1977, President Anwar Sadat cracked down on Cairenes who rose up in protest killing at least 80 people and injuring 1,000. Sadat then cleared out much of the Ishash-al-Turguman slum in the Balaq district (trying to follow an urban planning model based on Los Angeles and Houston), which swelled the ranks of the city’s homeless. In 1981, he suffered his own demise in a spectacular assassination while viewing a military parade. Then came the current president, Hosni Mubarak, whose days look like they might be numbered after thirty years of neglecting the crying social needs of his people.
In Cairo and other Egyptian cities, children under 12 constitute as much as 7 percent of the workforce. There are thousands of children in the streets “employed” as cigarette butt gatherers amassing tobacco to resell cigarettes.
In Cairo, a city estimated in 2004 to have a population of 15.6 million, there are more people living in slums — about 6 to 8 million — than the entire population was in 1950 (2.5 million). Cairo also has 100,000 or more apartments that are standing empty despite the enormous number of homeless people because they are too expensive for the poor to rent and their absentee landlords reside in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere. According to Jeffrey Nedoroscik, a researcher at the American University in Cairo, in Cairo’s “City of the Dead” about a million people use Mameluke tombs as makeshift housing. Cairo has an affluent gated city for the rich where they can pretend they live in Beverly Hills in million-dollar California-style homes shielded from the filth and destitution all around them.
The Egyptians were never really allowed to establish their own “New Deal” of reforms that might have taken the edge off the inequality and injustice rampant in their society — even after decades of being one of the United States’ staunchest allies. In recent years, the U.S. mobilization against the “bad” dictator in Iraq, Saddam Hussein, diverted attention away from the deeply unpopular “good” dictator in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak. Now, it’s too late.
What happens in Egypt might not stay in Egypt because its ruling elite is so closely tied to other ruling elites of the region. No one can predict how history will unfold. The regime could hold on or be replaced with something even worse. But not being able to predict the future should not stop those who desire justice from acting now and doing their best through direct action to try to bring about positive social change.
In June 1966, it looked like the apartheid regime in South Africa, with all its attendant injustices, would stand forever. But Robert F. Kennedy could envision a better future. The people of Egypt, who are now participating in historic protest, might find some inspiration from Kennedy’s words spoken 45 years ago: “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself,” he told a racially integrated audience of about 15,000 at the University of Cape Town, “but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”
“It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man [or woman] stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he [or she] sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Joseph A Palermo