The spark flared first in the small town of Sidi Bouzid, in central Tunisia, where Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old graduate student, was accosted by the authorities for selling produce in the souk – the equivalent of a farmer’s market — without a license. Bouazizi, like many in emerging economies, could not find a job in his field – or any other field – and so was forced to resort to hawking olives and oranges to support his family of eight. The officials reportedly humiliated him, and when he went to city hall to try to go "legal," they wouldn’t even let him in the door. These are the circumstances that led to his now famous act of self immolation: in protest, and in full view of passersby, he stood in front of city hall, poured lighter fluid on himself – and struck a match.
This spark set off a prairie fire still burning its way across the Middle East, a conflagration born of boiling resentment and red-hot anger directed at the authorities that has already spread to Egypt and Yemen, and shows every sign of flaring up well beyond the region. As a global economic downturn punctures the delusions of economic planners and technocrats worldwide, the bursting of the bubble brought on by unrestrained bank credit expansion is generating a political tsunami that promises to topple governments from North Africa to North America.
Egypt is the perfect candidate for what we might call the Bouazizian revolution – a US-supported kleptocracy ruled by a coalition of the military, the technocrats, and Washington, with the overarching figure of Hosni Mubarak – now 82 – presiding over it all. As in Tunisia, one of the key issues is the succession: rumors that the Egyptian dictator was planning to pass power on to his son, Gamal, fueled popular fury against this latter-day Pharaoh. In both cases, the state is controlled by a single party – in Egypt, it is the National Democratic Party — still resting on the long-ago laurels of an anti-colonialist uprising, and since reified into a bureaucratic incrustation on the body politic.
Another similarity – which, somehow, most commentators have failed to note – is that all these upsurges are against regimes that have enjoyed practically unqualified US military and political support. Tunisia’s Ben Ali was a favorite of George W. Bush’s, and the Tunisian tyrant continued to enjoy support from the Obama administration. US aid to the regime hovered in the $20 million range, all of it in military, "anti-terrorist," and anti-narcotics detection sectors, and was slated for an increase in FY 2010. Egypt, of course, is the linchpin of US-friendly countries in the region, and Yemen is the latest battleground in our never-ending "war on terrorism."
Just follow the money. The American taxpayers have shelled out an average $2 billion-plus per year to our Egyptian sock puppets since 1979. As for Yemen, as Warren Strobel points out, "U.S. aid to Yemen increased significantly in fiscal year 2010 to about $67 million, and is due to increase in the current fiscal year to $106 million." That’s not counting $170 million in military aid. This gravy train is undoubtedly the single largest income stream flowing into the country: Yemen, in short, is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the US government. The same can fairly be said about Egypt.
On her January surprise visit to Yemen, Hillary Clinton is said to have "gently chided" Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh to loosen his tenacious grip on the country’s political life, but as she got on the plane to depart she stumbled and took quite a fall – prefiguring the probable fate of Saleh, and, indeed, the various US puppet regimes in the region. The US is taking the same approach to Egypt, where demonstrators are demanding the resignation of Mubarak and being murdered in the streets: oh, but don’t worry, says White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, the Mubarak regime is "stable" in spite of it all.
This is arrant nonsense: Mubarak will follow Ben Ali into exile soon enough. Gamal has already packed up and fled to London with his family – and, reportedly, 100 pieces of luggage! The Egyptian authorities deny it, and the Guardian reports news of the son’s flight "appears to be wishful thinking."
In any case, the geniuses in charge of the US government are quite wrong if they think Mubarak can withstand the rising tide of protest, and the reason for their blindness isn’t hard to see. This administration seems to have forgotten the catchphrase popularized by its Clintonian predecessor: "It’s the economy, stupid." In this case, it’s the world economy, stupid: the global economic downturn that economist Nouriel Roubini – who predicted the 2008 implosion of the financial markets – says "can topple regimes." Commodity inflation means skyrocketing food prices – around two thirds of the consumer price index for emerging economies, as Roubini points out.
Roubini – and nearly every libertarian economist of the "Austrian" school – has long warned about the coming financial crisis of the West, the first seismic tremors of which we have been experiencing here in America since November 2008. But this is just the beginning: in the short term, unfunded liabilities and the interest on the national debt will account for a whopping 60 percent of GDP, and it won’t be long before it’s 100 percent. When that day comes – or, perhaps, long before it – the worldwide economic meltdown will be paying us a rather unwelcome visit, with consequences that are likely to make Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Greece look like romps in the park.
Our rulers can’t see the locomotive coming down the tracks, even though they’re standing right in its way: they still insist on the myth of "American exceptionalism," which supposedly anoints us with a special destiny and gives us the right to order the world according to our uniquely acquired position of preeminence. Yet that preeminence is increasingly being called into question by the economic facts of reality – and our own refusal to get our financial house in order. Blinded by hubris, and the habit of authority, the political class in America is no different, in essence, from its counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt: corrupt, arrogant, and used to commanding obedience, the Best and the Brightest are prisoners of their own complacency. Unable to comprehend, or sympathize with, the plight of the world’s miserable masses, encased in a bubble where the worst crisis they have to personally face is a broken chair lift at Davos, these preening Louis XIVs and Marie Antoinettes are in for a rude shock.
The nature of these populist revolts against authority will take on a different character according to where and when they occur, naturally enough: in Tunisia and Egypt, we see protests sparked by petty humiliations such as Mr. Bouazizi had to endure. In Greece and Great Britain, mass upsurges are the result of austerity budgets that cut ordinary people off at the knees while the banksters get bailed out. In America, we see the Tea Party rising against the tyranny of indebtedness and economic strangulation of the ordinary citizen – but this is just a prelude to the rising chorus of discontent and outright rebellion that will threaten American society in the years to come.
The revolutionary wave now sweeping the world will not exempt America, in spite of the myth of "American exceptionalism." We cannot and will not be excepted from the iron laws of economics, which mandate that you can’t consume more than you produce – no matter how many Federal Reserve notes (otherwise known as "money") you print.
The implications for US foreign policy are radical, and unsettling. While the decline and fall of the Roman Empire occurred over centuries of decay and degeneration, the process as it unfolds in America is likely to occur with what, in terms of human history, appears to be lightning speed. As our allies and satraps fall, one by one, across the Middle East and Europe, their fate prefigures our own.
Before we start cheering this world revolution as the salvation of us all, however, it ought to be remembered that revolutionary regimes often turn out to be worse than the tyrannies they’ve overthrown. There’s no telling what direction these political insurgencies will take, either in the Middle East or in America. As a negative example, recall the ideologies that arose in the 1930s in the wake of the Great Depression — German National Socialism, Italian Fascism, and Eurasian Bolshevism – and be forewarned. On a more positive note, here in the United States, at least, the possibilities are more balanced, although the dangers should not be underestimated.
What we are in for, finally, is a radical realignment of power, a vast shift that will break up the political landscape of every country on earth and shatter all the old assumptions. That old Chinese fortune-cookie curse, "May you live in interesting times," is about to come true.