How One Man Ignited the Protests in the Middle East, by Igniting Himself

Self-Immolation.  That’s the term used to describe the grisly act of dousing oneself in accelerant and lighting a match.  Many people hear the news about Egypt’s uprising and now Libya’s civil war (more like civil skirmish) but few really know that the spark that ignited the protests, which are toppling long-standing dictator regimes, was lit by a man named Mohamed Bouazizi.  In a desperate act of protest, Mr. Bouazizi stood in front of a government building and lit himself on fire.

Now the important thing to look into in this story, is not simply this man’s reason for such an awful display of protest, but why was this act copy-catted all throughout North Africa and the Arabian peninsula, and then followed by popular uprisings of a scale not seen in at least 50 years?  Finally, what are the probable conclusions to these rebellions?  What does it mean for these countries, the region, and the global economy?

Mohamed Bouazizi was a 27 year-old street vendor in Tunisia who was trying to support his younger siblings.  After his produce cart, which was apparently purchased on credit, was confiscated by police, who beat him for the privilege, Bouazizi went to the municipal building to complain.  No one in the office would offer to listen to his complaints, even after he said he would light himself on fire if no one would speak to him.  Sure enough, he was ignored and so he followed through with his threat. He died from his injuries after 18 days in the hospital.

Within hours of Bouazizi’s very public display of defiance, people on the street started forming.  In the days following, many reports of similar acts of martyr-dom spread across the region.  Protests began gaining steam.  The president of Tunisia fled the country.  Egyptian protesters, emboldened by the Tunisian people’s victory, camped out in Tahir square.  Protests broke out in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Iran, and Libya.  Egyptian leader Hosni Mumbarack got help from the military in resigning.  And, now the fate of Libyian dictator Mohammer Gadafi is all but sealed.

Lets make clear that these protesters are not speaking out against unfairness against one Tunisian street vendor.  Unemployment is the underlying fuel that is keeping this mass demonstration alight.  All of the countries in this region have massive amounts of young, fairly well educated citizens who cannot find jobs (in the range of 20 to 45% unemployment among citizens under 35).  When you add food price inflation of 20 to 50% and now these unemployed souls cannot even afford to feed their families.  And when they go to ask their governments for help, their pleas are falling on deaf, though very well-fed, ears.

Humiliation has long been recognized as one of the most rage inducing feelings out there.  And when a man has the dignity of pursuing a livelihood stripped from him, and is then cast aside and mocked, a bubbling pocket of rage can start forming very quickly.  This added with a desperation of not knowing how to provide for one’s family is a devil’s brew that can incite normally well intentioned people to not only sacrifice their life, but do so in an agonizingly painful and public way.  When a quarter of a country’s population all suffer from the same oppressions, the mobs start to form, and heads are demanded.

So what’s next?  Well as has been the case for the last 2,000 years for the middle east, violent changes in power do not resolve themselves overnight.  Egypt has not become a job engine for the people simply because Mubarak has left office.  So the near-term outlook is challenging, while the remaining parties jockey for power in Tunisia, Egypt, and soon Libya, and many more countries face the prospect of similar fates as protests continue.  Longer term, one has to believe that things will improve in many of the self-liberated nations, but that is no guarantee.  The people have proven they have the ability to dispatch a dictator, but there is not much evidence of an ability to self-govern, historically.  There are not many cases of thriving democracy throughout the MENA region.  So for now, these countries continue to be what they have always been; volatile,  conflicted, and hugely unpredictable.

While the epicenter of this seismic shift in power is a street corner in Tunisia, the after effects can be far reaching.  As I have mentioned a few times in my modest blog, things are not as good as they seem in China.  The Chinese government have shut-down protest websites and censored coverage of numerous street gatherings, while the people there are also quite angry.  The problem there is not unemployment, but under-employment, and these persistent protesters in the middle east may further embolden their eastern cousins into demanding better treatment.  Again, the dignity in making a living is severely impaired when you can’t live on what you make.  To be treated like an animal in a factory for two cents an hour can lead people to sudden and violent reactions, and suicides in Chinese factories have continued to climb.

In closing, the ramifications for us in the United States is rather modest.  The fighting in Libya has caused some minor interruptions in the oil markets, causing some investors to worry, and gas prices to creep higher, but these effects won’t last long.  Food price inflation could continue, and even get worse if mother nature continues to slam the planet with draughts and floods, which will affect all of our pocket books as well, but again, a decent global harvest and a little dose of political stability could cause the price of some ag products to drop in half.

I think the great big take-away in all of this is that as bad as things got here in the United States, around 90% of all people who wanted a job could get one, and while the middle class has gotten squeezed, we have the forum to be heard, and the tools and opportunities to move up in the world.  It helps to remember sometimes how good we actually have it.

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