Mainstream coverage of the Egyptian uprising depicts protests dominated by youth– organizing using Facebook and Twitter—that caused the fall of Mubarak. Sometimes the tragic case of Mohamed Bouazizi is referenced. He was the 26-year-old Tunisian whose self-immolation in protest of constant police harassment and humiliation led to the uprisings in Tunisia that soon spread to Egypt and beyond. Bouazizi’s death may have been the catalyst for protests organized with the aid of modern communications technology, but underlying causes of mass social unrest in Tunisia, Egypt and around the world are rarely mentioned.
What Bouazizi had in common with at least six recent similar suicides in Algeria, Egypt and Mauritania was deep poverty and unemployment. Of five countries covered by the World Bank’s “Investment Across Sectors Indicator”, Tunisia had the fewest limits on foreign investment, having opened all sectors of its economy to foreign ownership except electricity. In 1991 the IMF and World Bank imposed structural adjustments on Egypt. Mubarak sold off large portions of Egypt’s banks to the highest bidders while eliminating restrictions on foreign property investment. Such neoliberal policies may have created wealth in the short term, but by late 2009 foreign banks began dropping capital holdings and foreign real estate investment waned. Even while wealth was still coming in, benefits were not shared. According to World Bank Statistics, Egypt’s top earners increased its share of income since the 1990s while the country’s bottom percentage saw its portion get smaller. Right now about two-thirds of Egyptians are under the age of 30 with that group making up 80 to 90 percent of the unemployed (including 325,000 new college grads entering the job market each year). There is an inverse relationship between poverty and education; poverty usually decreases with higher levels of education. Despite much media focus on student protesters, Egypt has a 40 percent illiteracy rate. According to the National NGO Commission for Population and Development, the illiteracy rate is 62.5 percent for women. When Mubarak left office, he took with him a reported 70 billion dollars of stolen public money while 40 percent of Egyptians live on less than 2 dollars a day.
Making Egypt’s economic problems worse is the huge rise in food costs in recent months caused by climate change and financial speculation. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, the worldwide food price index is at an all time high, surpassing the previous record peak in 2008. Egyptians are especially vulnerable because of their reliance on the global food system (getting 40 percent of their food from foreign markets), trade reductions due to crop failures, and government corruption. As early as August 2010, economic analysts predicted a food crisis in Egypt following Russia’s announcement of a grain export ban due to the country’s record heat, wildfires, and drought that summer. Egypt is the world’s top wheat importer, relying on 6 to 7 million tons from the international market annually with about 50% coming from Russia. In November 2010 Mubarak bought millions of tons of wheat on the global market at great expense while severely cutting Egypt’s rice production due to water shortages. This caused sharp spikes in regional wheat and rice prices making key staple foods inaccessible to the poor. The fall of the Mubarak regime may have been inevitable, but pain and suffering of citizens would have been reduced had there been more localized means of food production (with a focus on staple crops better suited to the local environment) and more equitable systems of trade and distribution. Ironically, the highly petrochemical-dependent global food system may be a leading cause of the climate changes now exposing the system’s weaknesses.
The Egypt uprising is a struggle for survival and a revolt against a parasitic system that sucks wealth and resources from an increasingly impoverished majority to the uppermost elite. Within a span of a few short years, protests have erupted in Iceland, Greece, England, Ireland, France, Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Zimbabwe, Bolivia and even the United States. The protesters may target different governments and highlight different issues, but all are struggles for basic needs. They are also responses to the consequences of decades of failed neoliberal policies and government corruption such as budget cuts, bailouts, layoffs, mass poverty and unemployment, dismantling of social services, regressive taxation, privatization, inflation, and food shortages. Hopefully, citizens around the world will continue to mobilize to challenge and change the current global economic system no matter how many leaders get ousted and replaced.