A major factor behind the unrest in the Middle East is economic dissatisfaction.
The policies instituted by the governments in the area have failed to improve the lot of their people. Both Tunisia and Egypt undertook free-market restructuring in recent decades. Tunisia traveled such a distance in that direction that it was touted as a role model for other Arab countries. But the results were dismal for the Tunisian population.
"Tunisia -- more than almost any country in the region -- has followed the dictates of Washington and the International Monetary Fund in instituting 'structural adjustment programs' in privatizing much of its economy and allowing for an unprecedented level of 'free trade,'" Professor Stephen Zunes wrote about the recently ousted Tunisian dictatorship. "These policies have increased rather than decreased unemployment while enriching relatives and cronies of the country's top ruling families."
A similar story played out in Egypt. The current Egyptian ruling dispensation traces its lineage back to Gamal Abdel Nasser, who instituted a slew of welfare measures. Although Nasser lacked the gumption to truly take on the dominant classes, his policies did aim at a compact with the Egyptian people.
Egypt under Hosni Mubarak took a different course, however, abandoning notions of social justice.
"Since a group of officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the monarchy in 1952, its corpulent king leaving behind a vast collection of pornography, the government has sought to claim the mantle of peasants and workers," reports the New York Times. "Especially in the past decade, it has shed that pretense, concentrating its power around the military -- long beyond criticism in the Egyptian media -- as well as the loathed Interior Ministry, a governing party skilled in patronage and a clique of the very wealthy, many loyal to Mr. Mubarak's son, Gamal."
All this has been done under the rubric of neoliberal economics (endorsed by the United States and U.S.-dominated international institutions) that has benefited only a few, while pauperizing the masses.
"The upper middle class and the elites have prospered," writes Professor Joel Beinin. "There has been very little trickle down. According to the World Bank, more than 40 percent of all Egyptians live at or near the poverty line."
When you add to this spiraling food prices and immense corruption, you get the conditions that give rise to desperate actions such as that of a Tunisian street vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, who burned himself in protest -- setting off reverberations that are playing out across the region.
Middle Easterners are seeking liberation not only from authoritarianism but also from the economic policies that have impoverished them.
If you liked this article by Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of The Progressive magazine, please check out his article entitled "History is Being Made--Without the U.S.."
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