Tracing the Path of Social Upheaval Across the Middle East and North Africa

Are you watching all this, Fellow Reckoner? Now it’s Syria’s turn on the hotplate. Has the world gone mad? More to the point, was it ever sane to begin with? In any case, it is a breathtaking show put on for all the world to watch. Who would want to miss it? What a time to be alive!

But before we get too carried away, before we get into the juicy details, let’s just take a step back for a moment. This period of history is so brimming with events to inspire laughter and sorrow and everything in between. We want to be sure we give each case their just deserts.

Let’s start where all good tales of intrigue start, at the beginning…

Imagine you’re a down-on-your-luck, 26-year old college grad unable to find work in Tunisia. Your friends all have similar problems, so it’s no use crying to them…you’ve got to earn some cash of your own. So, what do you do? How about making a little on the side selling some fruit and veg? Sounds like a viable plan, eh?

Nope. No dice. When the local authorities confiscated Mohamed Bouazizi’s produce (for selling without a street license) back in December, the young Tunisian was so angry he promptly set himself on fire. Overreaction? Well, self-immolation might not be the first thought that pops into most people’s heads, but what do we know? We’re not an out of work 26-year old Tunisian college grad trying to make a buck. And we haven’t had the bulbous thumb of an oppressive dictator on our head since we were a baby.

In any case, the event awakened a long-dormant undercurrent of anger, precipitating a wave of civil unrest that eventually took down the Tunisian government, ending the multi-decade authoritarian rule of US-backed president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. And this was just the beginning. Soon after the crowds in Tunisia began singing their songs of freedom, the tune spread to Egypt, Libya and across the Red Sea to Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and beyond.

Freedom, after all, is a catchy tune.

And now we see that Syria’s House of Assad is on the back foot. The Assad family have been ruling the roost for four decades. That, for much of Syria’s young population, is more than their entire lifetime. According to the figures, approximately one-third of Syria’s 23 million people are under 14 years of age. That makes for a lot of teenage angst in the very near future.

Iran’s chief Arab ally may be, as The Wall Street Journal puts it, “a latecomer to the spring of Muslim discontent,” but it is wasting no time making up for its tardy arrival. According to some human rights groups, more than 60 people have been killed as security forces cracked down on the demonstrations spreading around the country.

In his first public speech since revolts began there almost two weeks ago, Syrian President Bashar Assad blamed “conspirators” for the violence washing over his (for now) land, for what the papers are calling an “extraordinary wave of dissent against his authoritarian rule.”

As usual, the papers have got it all front-to-back. There is nothing “extraordinary” about slaves rising up against oppressive masters. They always rise up…eventually. What is most extraordinary, at least to our thinking, is how long people will take it on the chin before saying “enough is enough,” before they bring their gloves up, either to defend themselves…or to land a counterpunch.

“We don’t seek battles,” Assad said in a televised speech on Wednesday, before adding, somewhat provocatively, “But if a battle is imposed on us today, we welcome it.”

If the people are unhappy in Syria, if they are longing for freedom across the Middle East, they were a long time silent about it. Brutal regimes have been running the place for decades. Then again, stealth is oppression’s best weapon; it creeps in slowly, like a silent, invisible, lethal gas. Good people stand aside and do nothing and then, before you know it, you wake up one day to find half the population being forced to dress in cloth bags and the other half too stupefied and/or terrified to do anything about it.

We have no idea whether Mr. Bouazizi is destined to become the Archduke Ferdinand of the 21st century, or how many militaristically enthusiastic nations will find the conflicts in that troubled part of the world too irresistible to refrain from joining. We do know, however, that repressed anger is generally not a healthy thing…not for individuals, and certainly not for entire generations of young men and women with a spark of freedom in their hearts.

It is curious, then, that the various goings on in the Middle East (and North Africa…and Japan…and along Europe’s periphery) barely inspire a whimper from the markets. Not even the scalawag shenanigans concocted in the oak-paneled halls of government buildings in Washington DC raise a questioning eyebrow from the mainstream media. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is still cruising, as if on autopilot, some 800 points above where it began the year. Neither manmade nor natural disasters seem capable of disturbing its terminally ascendant flight pattern.

But, not unlike the stealthy creep of oppression, market crashes tend to remain unseen too…until the moment they become all-too obvious, when it is already too late.

Joel Bowman
for The Daily Reckoning

The Daily Reckoning