Thursday, February 24, 2011

Lessons from North Africa

North Africa is in a turmoil. Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution started it, achieving regime change via civil resistance and political protest demonstrations. Cairo's Tahrir Square protests followed in Egypt, toppling Mubarak's U.S.-backed administration. But so far, few of the media circling this hot spot of news material has pointed out the significance of these two countries' rural poverty at the root of their initial discontent.

This report on NPR (and only a few others, such as Al Jazeera) stated the obvious: rural Tunisians fared worse than their urban counterparts. As this blog post already stated, to a large extent, Ben Ali's regional neglect and cronyism caused investments from the West (U.S. and E.U., mostly) to flow to the cities, with little or not trickle down to the rural central and southern regions. Maybe it was just that trickle down economics does not really work. Or maybe the neglect of the countryside stemmed from a rather sinister motivation. As NPR said:
Ben Ali came from the Tunisian coast, so there was an added sense in the rural areas that the ousted dictator favored the coastal resort towns while people here got nothing.
Reuters reported similar sentiments from rural Egypt:
The protests may have begun with an educated youth and liberal, urban elite, but a tour of the Nile Delta suggests discontent is more widespread. ... The capital and its central Tahrir Square has been the epicentre of protests, but cities across the Delta north of Cairo, those far to the south and others to the east have also had streets filled with demonstrators demanding Mubarak go. ... Two-thirds of Egypt's population is under 30. That age group accounts for 90 percent of the jobless. Protesters want wealth from economic liberalisation, promoted by the former cabinet, to spread beyond a business elite linked to the ruling party.
To further complicate the picture, not only is the Egyptian population, but as this blog post points it out, it is also increasingly rural.  Young, rural, and unemployed.  These reports seem to indicate that the rural-urban divide in North Africa is also a class-based divide, a disparity of opportunity, of the presence of diverse businesses and supportive institutions. Sound familiar?

We discussed earlier that even though the rural U.S. is discontent, an increasing amount of that discontent is aimed at policies that have little to do with economic opportunity. Thomas Frank argues in What's the Matter with Kansas? that the formerly progressive population of Midwestern, agrarian and rural states, such as Kansas, were "won" over by the Conservatives, who succeeded in mis-educating the working classes there, and managed to transfer their discontent to unobtainable, culture-war issues.

I tend to agree with this view. Even if one disagrees, however, it is hard not to realize that the economic discontent over the loss of rural opportunity may, one day, fuel a revolt here in our own country. Are we, Americans of the coastal regions, resolved to ignoring our own good people for decades? In other words: are we like Ben Ali?

1 comment:

lauren said...

I think it will be interesting to see if any political parties, or advocacy groups, more representative of rural areas in Egypt arise as the elections draw nearer, and to what degree non-urban populations will be represented in the new government.