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World World Citizen: Globalization Fuels the Arab Uprising

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    World Citizen: Globalization Fuels the Arab Uprising


    World Politics Review
    Frida Ghitis - 10 Feb 2011

    Observers of the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and other countries in the Arab world have focused with great excitement on the role played by new media, suggesting the events demonstrate the power of social networks to build a revolution. The rebellion, they say, was a uniquely 21st-century product of Twitter, Facebook and even Wikileaks. The reality, however, is much more complex. Many factors came into play to unleash the chain reaction that came crashing into Cairo's Tahrir Square. Some of those factors are as new as the iPhone, others as old as the slingshot. But what made the long-simmering popular resentment against the government build and come together with such force was the convergence of these disparate factors, all driven by the world's continuing integration -- the process we know as globalization.

    The uprisings may have important links to Silicon Valley. But they are just as closely tied to events and decisions in places as seemingly unrelated as Australia, Pakistan, Washington and Beijing.

    Among the forces propelling the revolt is one that has received little attention: the worldwide spiraling of food prices. Oppression is more easily endured when it comes with prosperity; when it is accompanied instead by worsening poverty and hunger, the seeds of discontent start sprouting. When anger and frustration reach the bursting point, it overpowers the fear of confronting a repressive regime's brutality. It is that fear that had prevented the people from revolting years, even decades earlier.

    Rising prices for indispensable commodities have caught impoverished people the world over in a maelstrom they have no power to control. Poverty and hunger have fueled revolutions throughout history. Now it was Egypt's turn.

    Unlike the impact of Twitter, Facebook, and Wikileaks, this is an age-old story. But the causes of this particular steep climb in food costs are historically unprecedented. And the reason it has pounded Egypt with such force is also different from previous waves of inflation.

    Egypt, a country of 80 million, imports most of the food it eats. Rising food prices cut into meager family budgets and put giant holes in the national treasury. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has just reported that its Food Price Index has reached the highest level since its inception more than two decades ago. Prices have climbed without a breather for seven months.

    For people living in the stagnant economies of the Middle East, the rise in prices comes without the silver lining of future growth that helps consumers in other developing countries weather the squeeze on their wallets. The tightening financial situation added intensity to longstanding anger over corruption, police brutality, and political charades. By contrast, in place like China, Brazil, and India, the economies are booming. The cost of living is rising, but the possibility of emerging from poverty is tangible. While it's true that economic growth has not benefited everyone in those countries and others, it is also true that many have gained, creating the anger-easing prospect of at least a chance at a better future in growing economies. In fact, it is a bitter irony that prosperity in places such as China is one of the many causes of inflation in Egypt.

    The current wave of inflation is also the result both of rich countries' efforts to emerge from the global recession and of devastating natural disasters.

    When the U.S. Federal Reserve decided to inject more money into the American economy to avoid a "double dip" recession, it fueled a wave of speculation in commodities markets that stoked inflation. The phenomenon was so clearly visible that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke defended himself from charges that his "quantitative easing" policy was behind the rekindled inflation and the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt.

    Bernanke pointed instead to "excess demand pressure in emerging markets" -- in other words, all those new shoppers in Shanghai and Bangalore, who are pushing up prices for everyone. That's what happens when globalization links all markets.

    Food prices have also increased because of supply problems due to natural phenomena. The scorching drought in Russia and the devastating floods in Pakistan and Australia, among other weather disruptions, have cut the available amount of food for sale.

    Less food supply and more demand means higher prices. And in a fully globalized market, it means inflation for shoppers in Cairo, Alexandria, and Tunis.

    Making matters worse is America's policy of using grain to produce ethanol. Ironically, in its effort to reduce dependence on oil from the unstable Middle East, Washington has diverted grain from food markets, adding to social unrest and instability in the Middle East.

    With countries like Egypt spending so much of their resources on food subsidies, their budgets came under pressure, adding to economic challenges and unemployment in a region that already has the world's highest levels of unemployment. Even with economic growth improving, the dismal employment prospects -- including for university graduates -- added to the rising despair. When economies stirred, all it did was raise expectations and ultimately add to the sense of frustration. Efforts to modernize the economy, in order to make it more competitive and to create more jobs, only added to the hardships of the poor, fomenting instability.

    It is no wonder then that, since the political earthquake began in North Africa, governments in Jordan, Algeria, Syria and others have reversed cuts to food subsidies and put off planned economic liberalization.

    Where the new media platforms came into play was in turning that simmering frustration into politically productive street demonstrations. Live television and internet connections helped raise the awareness of the population about the conditions in their countries relative to other places, and it helped communicate to Egyptians the astounding message of the Tunisian revolution: that dictators can be toppled.

    Without the efforts of internet activists, the revolution might have taken longer to occur. But if Twitter and Facebook provided a temporary launch vehicle, it was the fuel of economic frustration and anger that turned the revolt into a lasting, broad-based national movement with the power to bring real change.

    Frida Ghitis is an independent commentator on world affairs and a World Politics Review contributing editor. Her weekly column, World Citizen, appears every Thursday.

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