Monday, 31 January 2011

The worms of the earth are finally turning across the Middle East and while the outcome of events within Tunisia, Jordan and Egypt have yet to be determined, the roots of these protests and revolutions lie in one common factor, which is the shared experiences of millions of people in an already turbulent region.

A joint study by the Arab League and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) indicated that in most Arab countries young people constitute 50 per cent of the unemployed - the highest rate in the world, while official figures place unemployment in the Arab world at 15 per cent but many economists believe the real rate is far higher than government statistics suggest.

According to the same report, rates of poverty remain high - "reaching up to 40 per cent on average, which means that nearly 140 million Arabs continue to live under the poverty line", with worse news being, the region seeing no decrease in rates of poverty in the last 20 years.

While Arab countries like Jordan have been working to create an open-market economy that would see a greater flow of foreign capital into a resource-barren country, already dependent on U.S. aid, the foreign debt is estimated at around $15 billion, about double the amount reported three years ago, while the economy saw a record deficit of $2 billion this year, with inflation rising to 6.1 percent just last month alone.

Like in Egypt and Tunisia, in Jordan rampant unemployment and poverty is estimated between 12 and 25 percent, with local residents complaining that "The government buys cars and spends lavishly on its parties and travel, while many Jordanians are jobless or can barely put food on their tables to feed their hungry children," said one civil servant and father of three, who earns $395 a month.

It was not until the global economic crisis that the Arab world started to witness the recovery of popular opposition - first materialising in Egypt in 2007 and 2008, where strikes and protests were the first indications of a return to organised protests against political repression and poverty inducing policies.

These movements, while in the past have either gained concessions or been unsuccessful, they did lay the foundations which brought the students and workers together to challenge the apathy and disdain of the ruling elites.

According to Firas Al-Atraqchi, a lecturer at the American University in Cairo, “In an unprecedented show of civil disobedience and open revolt, young Egyptians have clearly and forcibly delivered a message that is still resonating in the Middle East and North Africa: Authoritarian rule in the region is over“.

The protesters have been dismantling archaic forms of government, in which the ruler is considered beyond reproach and where economic policies are determined by his self-preserving allies. They are demanding equality in the distribution of wealth, an end to state corruption, greater employment opportunities and a curb to rampant inflation.

Yet when street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi poured flammable liquid over his body and set himself on fire in Tunisia, his act of protest cemented a revolt that would ultimately end President Ben Ali's 23-year-rule and send the region into flames.

Bouazizi was only 10 years old when he became the main provider for his family, selling fresh produce in the local market. He stayed in high school long enough to sit his baccalaureate exam, but did not graduate. He never attended university, contrary to what many news organisations have reported but as his mother stated to Al-Jazeera; "He didn't expect to study, because we didn't have the money“.

He later applied to join the army but was refused, as were other successive job applications and with his family dependant on him, there were few other options than to continue working at the market and nearly everyday, he was bullied by local police officers, "Since he was a child, they were mistreating him”, even claimed one close friend.

Apparently the abuse took many forms, mostly petty bureaucratic bullying that millions of Arabs know all too well, with incidents including Police confiscating his produce, fines for running a stall without a permit and even six months before his death, police fined him 400 dinars ($280) – the equivalent of two months earnings.

So while people may debate the rights and wrongs of what is taking place on their TV screens, the sound of the young angry Arabs who are leading this regional revolution, conjures up in my mind one poem by Maya Angelou, who wrote:

"Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise."


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