This article was originally published by Current Intelligence.
According to a 2010 report (pdf) by the U.S.-based watchdog organization Freedom House, nearly 1/4 of the planet’s 194 countries are “Not Free”, freedom in this sense based on the political rights and civil liberties of the country’s population. Not surprisingly, the stretch of North Africa (running from Algeria to Egypt), where protests in recent weeks have seen governments toppled and online communication sites such as Twitter and Facebook blacked out, rank high on the lacking-political-rights-and-civil-liberties scale.
To the West, “Partly Free” Morocco has managed to stay out of the headlines for the most part — despite its freedom rating falling in the last year and a case of self-immolation by a young man in Casablanca last Friday.
East of the North African protest strip, of course, the freedom ratings aren’t much better. From Jordan to Afghanistan, with pockets of partial freedom here and there and the exception of a very free Israel (Occupied Territories notwithstanding), what in many places is democracy in name only is being challenged by people who want undemocratic leadership out.
Tunisians began protesting in mid-December and it took weeks of sustained and on-going protests for President Ben Ali to leave. Egypt, thus far, has one full day under its belt and reports from Algeria imply protest there are unsustained. By cutting off social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, governments hope to quell efforts to organize potential protests but reports (largely on these same sites) indicate that protesters are still managing to relay information to others about assembly points (after all, it worked during the French Revolution… ). Reuters is reporting Egypt has banned demonstrations and will detain protesters, a move that will likely lead to more protests rather than less.
But while the West focuses on protests in pretty places it knows better for their tourist potential than for their internal politics (I’ve already seen London taxis with Egypt and Tunisia travel advertisements on them today) some less dramatic protests also plague the region.
What should stand out most about the demonstrations is how they mirror what’s been happening in the West. Tunisians didn’t oust their president after 24 years simply because two and a half decades is long enough. Rising food costs and high unemployment became intolerable to a people who saw their leaders as corrupt and out of touch. Certainly the London student protesters of late last year, fighting rising tuition costs and feeling deceived by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (who promised to end fees altogether) can relate. Just today the BBC reported 20 percent of university graduates are unable to find work. Spain, of course, has such a high unemployment rate, and has for so long, that one more bout of unemployment is viewed as an inevitability. Around the globe there are fears of higher costs for food, oil and other natural resources, at risk of rising due to inflation. McDonald’s, that Platonic form of cheap food, is raising its prices — though the more cynical among us will chalk that up as just another move to boost profits.
Lets not forget too that in Pakistan, Karachi University ended its fall term in a fit of violence and protests, starting classes in January two weeks later than scheduled. Here the issue is largely one of gaining political control over the university in the country’s ongoing political disputes. Rather than protest government control and partisan bickering, Americans simply scoff at the seating arrangement for the State of the Union Address, criticising every word while not actually taking action on governmental inaction. In fact, even the press in the U.S. has become so used to rising costs, unemployment and political infighting that it barely reported that the U.S.’ old nemesis Osama bin Laden — you know, the archetypal evil villain, the one who inspired military operations in Afghanistan — released another tape. Not that most Americans seem too bothered. Even the one-time sole representative of all that is bad on earth has become a footnote.
Maybe, for the west, the problem seems too big. Obama’s speech last night talked of the need to freeze spending on everything except defence and major social programs, while his government made more than US$16.5 billion in arms deals with the Near East/South Asia region last year alone. Maybe the low numbers for “Not Free” political rights and civil liberties have something to do with all those weapons in the hands of oppressive governments. Good thing the one selling them all is rated the most “Free” a country can be.