In 1912, when German scientist Alfred Wegener put forth the theory that the seemingly solid land masses beneath our feet weren’t stationary, he was ridiculed. Today, the concept is widely accepted. We still tend to fall for the illusion of permanence in the global landscape, however, until events such as those unfolding in the Middle East remind us how the world we think we know can suddenly change shape.
Of course, the changes are never really sudden. When Egyptian protests forced President Hosni Mubarak to step down in February, many commentators asked why no one saw it coming. Egyptian writer Tarek Osman did. In Egypt on the Brink, published, amazingly, a few months earlier by Yale University Press, he writes, “The regime is potentially close to a tipping point” and “the regime’s tactics...of containment, coercion or confrontation...are reaching a limit.”
He describes how the ground was already shifting year by year. For example, there were hundreds of riots and strikes from 2005 through 2009, suggesting that fear was losing its hold on the young. Those eruptions of public outrage presaged the February demonstrations in Tahrir square much as a volcano’s smoky belches augur the landscape-changing lava flow to come. But the world’s despots and intelligence agencies had come to discount the rumblings of angry youth as so much hot air.
Osman explains that Egypt’s youthful population—45 million are under 35—is more urban and educated than prior generations, but those factors only added to the frustration. Driving the discontent was widespread government corruption and income disparity. More than 40 percent of the country’s wealth is in the hands of the top 5 percent, often those with connections to Mubarak, Osman notes. For example, he writes, “the country’s most successful healthcare entrepreneur is the health minister.”
Osman also points to the endemic use of torture, adding, “The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights estimates that as many as 18,000 people remain in detention without charge or trial, with many held in horrific conditions.”
“The thwarted aspirations of these relatively educated youths...was propitious for Islamism,” notes Osman, because “it was perceived as the opposite of everything that might have contributed to the current problems.” But he also cautions the West not to assume that a hostile militant form of Islamism will become the dominant force.
On a positive note, he writes that “millions of young Egyptians...are highly westernized [and even among the poorest] the openness to the world makes them realize that there is much more to life than the immediate circumstances they have been born into.”
It all may hinge on whether the military chooses (or is allowed) to play a transitional role to “lead the way toward genuinely free elections,” he concludes.
Other Middle Eastern countries are seeing similar tectonic shifts from their own revolutionary explosions. We’ll have to wait for the fervor to cool before we know whether these molten youthful masses successfully reform their monarchical regimes into real democracies.