What is going on in Egypt may have little to do Islamic fundamentalism or democracy per se.

It is probably the result of many factors, and many of us will probably compare the demonstrations to the uprising in Iran against the Shah.

Egypt’s government is corrupt, and the US has been propping up that regime for years, something has been noted by the locals and many astute outsiders, but not well reported in the US media. Again, this reminds one of the positive press coverage of the Shah, when every Iranian told a different story.

So I can only shudder at this comment by El Baradei:

Prior to returning to Cairo, ElBaradei wrote a scathing critique of the U.S. response to Egypt’s crisis, saying he was “flabbergasted” by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s view that Mubarak’s government was stable and seeking to respond to the aspirations of its people.

“If you would like to know why the United States does not have credibility in the Middle East, that is precisely the answer,” ElBaradei wrote on the Daily Beast website.

“When you say the Egyptian government is looking for ways to respond to the needs of the Egyptian people, I feel like saying, ‘Well, it’s too late!'”.

But the revolt probably was inspired by the previous demonstrations in Tunisia, where increases in the prices of food was the tipping point that led to the people’s revolt.

Food prices here in Asia have been going up due to bad harvests, inflation and increased shipping costs due to the increased price of oil. The increase in food prices and increased food insecurity may topple many governments in the near future. To Americans, blaming world wide inflation on the local government might not make sense, until one realizes that the underlying problem is corruption.

From the LATimes last October, about how corruption allows prices to skyrocket.

Vendors complain of a monopoly by wholesalers and poor government supervision over pricing. Mohamed Ragab, a member of the Cairo Chamber of Commerce, said many stores and shops rigged the market by hoarding good for months and then selling them for higher prices as the demand rose.

So who will “win”? Alas, CNNInternational last night is reporting the “main opposition group” is the “Muslim brotherhood”,( without stating that organizations radical agenda or their link to terrorism in the past).

There are a lot of problems ahead for Egypt,but whether the result will be a government crackdown on all opposition or a government takeover by organized religious radicals or maybe even a democracy being put into place is anyone’s guess.

My guess is that the government in Egypt will fail. President Obama’s weak support of President Mubarak sounds disturbingly like President Carter’s weak defense of the Iranian Shah many years ago.

But could the US actually stop the demonstrations?

Of course. US troops will not invade Egypt, but there are a lot of things that can be done and have been done in the past to insure “US friendly” governments are put into place. Cory Aquino would have been toast if Reagan hadn’t called Marcos and told him to leave, and Iranians still smart at the CIA’s intervention back in 1953.

Then there is the “religious” element. Will religious radicals take over? Here in the Philippines, the “People Power” revolution had religious support, but it was in support of re-instituting a secular Democracy. If Iraq is able to try to form a stable democracy, one can thank the Ayatollah Sistani and other leaders for their backing.

One wishes that a similar religious backing of democracy would occur in Egypt, but I doubt that will happen, only because secular states have such a bad reputation. Many anti war American newspapers hint the dislike of secular democracy is due to the instability in post war Iraq’s struggling democracy, but the real reason may be more complicated.

This Turkish blog posts a Turkish newspaper article that points out that many reject a corrupt secular elite state that imposed “modern reforms” (including discouraging religion) from above. Such policies are rejected by a lot of ordinary folks, who are sick of being pushed around by a corrupt autocracy that jails the opposition and imposes “reform” from above…

A somewhat similar pattern can be observed in Egypt, Syria and Iraq as well, in which independence from colonial rule led not to democracy but brutal autocracy. The secular dictators that dominated these countries promoted a combination of nationalism and socialism, while imprisoning, torturing and killing their political opponents, which included the Islamic groups. Factions among the latter grew radicalized, waging “jihads” against their oppressors, and, ultimately, their Western patrons…

To put it differently, “the problem with Arabs” is not that they lack “their Atatürk,” as the popular saying goes. In fact, they did have their Atatürks – deified leaders who imposed authoritarian modernization. What they have rather lacked is their Menderes, their Özal, or their Erdoğan – popularly elected leaders who promoted modernization within liberty, democracy and respect to tradition.

That last part, respect to tradition, means things like not punishing pious women for wearing a veil, which was the law until recently in Turkey.

Most Americans view such revolts through the lens of Marxism, or (in Arab states) through a lens viewing the population as potential religious fanatics who will turn to terrorism.

Yet this StrategyPage article explains many of these countries have the same problem as we have in the Philippines: A small elite that runs everything, steals a lot, and keeps outsiders from taking over:

In most Arab countries, a group of able politicians make deals with the wealthier families and agree to run the place for their mutual benefit. Senior government and military officials come from this same small group, that represents a few percent of the country. It’s all very medieval, with the rest of the population considered ignorant peasants, to be manipulated and taxed indefinitely. But in the last half century, radio, TV, cell phones, the Internet and more education have made the “peasants” all too aware of their situation, and how it can be changed…

Not having expertise in Middle Eastern affairs, I wouldn’t dare make predictions, but having lived in three countries where tyrannical leaders started to lose power, I am wondering if the “Arab street” has reached their “tipping point”. As one ordinary African once explained to me: “Sometimes we just get tired of these things, and even a small snake has a tooth”.

Given the threat of hunger from higher prices on food, if higher oil prices force a rise in  food prices in the near future, expect to see more civil unrest in many different countries.

In Egypt, even if these demonstrations are put down, the revolts might not be quelled for long  given the state of the world economy.

Whether or not democracy will triumph, or the Islamic radicals take over will be the real question in the next few days.


comments from those with expertise are welcome, but hate speech will be removed.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. She writes about human rights at MakaipaBlog

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