A Handy Guide to the Revolts in the Middle East

And Their Likely Effects On Us

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The Middle East and North Africa map

The Middle East and North Africa. Click image to enlarge.

In 1848, protests and revolutions swept through Europe. The specific causes were different in each country, but the underlying cause was the same everywhere: The middle and upper middle classes—politically powerless in these absolutist monarchies—wanted more control over their lives.

We are having an 1848 moment in the Middle East: Autocratic governments in two of these countries have been overthrown outright (Tunisia and Egypt), one is sliding into civil war (Libya), and a host of others are teetering. A few other undemocratic governments beyond the Middle East are very worried that their restive populations might get ideas—China, I’m looking at you.

The immediate spark for these revolts has been the rising price of food—but the fuel for this bonfire has been decades of political marginalization for large swathes of the educated population of these Middle Eastern countries.

Autocratic regimes never fare well during economic downturns. The Global Depression that began with the financial crisis in 2008 is slowly but surely picking up a head of inflationary steam, which has been squeezing the middle classes in these countries. A middle class being squeezed economically eventually oozes out political unrest—as we have been seeing throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Now, in early March 2011, with the fate of these various revolts still unclear, it would be wise to go over them, and see where they are in each country. And it would be wise, too, to examine how these various revolts in the Middle East will affect the rest of the world in the short- to medium-term.

So to begin:


One of the things we forget is that, when history decides to move, it can move fast. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had been in power in Tunisia since 1987, winning crooked election after crooked election, all the while supported by the United States and especially France.

All was copacetic for decades—until one morning, December 10, 2010, a 26 year-old vegetable vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi had his cart confiscated by a policewoman in the city of Sidi Bouzid. She insulted him and reportedly spat in his face. When he tried to get redress from the local municipality, he was rebuffed. Out of frustration, humiliation, and likely impulsive foolishness, he doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire, in protest at the unfairness of it all.

The outrage this triggered in the rest of the Tunisian population is remarkable. Protests started in Sidi Bouzid, then quickly spread throughout the rest of the country, even as the government of President Ben Ali tried very seriously to quell it: Tear gas, riot police, the whole shebang.

But it didn’t work. Ben Ali found himself fleeing the country for his life, and settling in Saudi Arabia with (allegedly) one-and-a-half tons of Tunisia’s gold. Interpol put out an international arrest warrant against him.

What was key in the Tunisian revolt was that the middle and upper-middle classes joined in the protests: Their sense of disenfranchisement made the revolt happen.

Why did they join? Because of food prices: They had been steadily rising, crippling the middle classes’ ability to feed itself. That’s the reason for all protests, all revolts, all revolutions: Food, not freedom. Freedom is just a nice bonus.


Inspired by the Tunisian revolt, and sparked too by rising food prices, Egyptians started their own revolution on January 25. Emphasizing non-violence, the revolt—really just a series of strikes, work-stoppages and peaceful marches and demonstrations centered around Tahrir Square in Cairo—achieved its objective in short order: On February 11, President Hosni Mubarek stepped down, after more than 30 years in power.

(There had been prior disturbances involving Coptic Christians, who had been targetted by radical Muslims, up to and including a New Year’s bombing of a church, which killed 21. Certainly the Coptics—feeling that justice was not being accorded them—joined the protests against Mubarek’s regime. But they weren’t a decisive factor in Mubarek’s resignation. Violence against Coptic Christians has resumed, but it is clearly separate and distinct from the revolt that brought down Mubarek.)

The Mubarek regime was unprepared for the revolt—but it certainly had the military and the men to put it down. By all calculations, the Mubarek regime should have been able to quell the revolt—easily. The problem was, it lacked both the will to violently defend itself, and the support of any large sector of the populace.

Because Mubarek didn’t have the will or gumption to order the military to quell the protests, the military wavered—and that was Mubarek’s doom. He fled Egypt on February 11, leaving Egypt in political tatters.

The military formed a Supreme Council of the Armed Forces—basically an 18-man junta—which immediately guaranteed that Egypt would live up to its international treaties and responsibilities, and further guaranteed that there would be free and open parliamentary and presidential elections within 6 months. Before the revolution, presidential elections were scheduled for September; likely this will be when the general election will be held.

As of last week, the Prime Minister installed by Mubarek, Ahmed Shafik, was forced out by the opposition and by protestors, for being too closely allied to Mubarek. The caretaker administration is being run by Primer Minister Essam Sharaf. There is still a heady feeling in Egypt, but according to friends on the ground, the country is slowly getting back to normal.

The Egyptian revolt showed the rest of the region just how easily an autocratic regime could be overthrown, even after decades in power.


Protests against Col. Muammar Gaddafi began in early February, sparked by the success of the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. On February 20, the revolt spread to Tripoli—from then on, it was game on, with the protestors taking control of the eastern coastal cities and towns, while Gaddafi held on to Tripoli on the western coast, and the all-important oil fields to the south. Since then, there has been sporadic fighting—more like tussling than a real, bloody civil war.

The reason Gaddafi has not been able to put down the revolt quickly and effectively is...

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"A Handy Guide to the Revolts in the Middle East—And Their Likely Effects On Us"

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About Gonzalo Lira