These past few weeks have seen nothing but unrest from the most varied of places. From Tunisia to Albania and beyond – the world’s economic unrest is producing a tornado of popular uprisings and a kaleidoscope of power dynamics is emerging that may shape the next decade. As I write this article, all eyes are toward Egypt, where popular unrest has left at least 5 people dead and over 870 injured.
On January 3 in Tunisia, Mohammed Bouazizi, 26, a produce worker angered when police confiscated his stand (his sole source of support for his wife and children) died after setting himself on fire a few weeks before. This set off the “Jasmine Revolution“, and popular discontentment with unemployment, corruption, and poverty would drive thousands into the streets — exiling the president in under two weeks.
The spirit of unrest would spread to neighboring Algeria. On January 16, 26-year-old Mohsen Bouterfif set himself on fire in a “copycat suicide” after failing to find a job. The protesting had already begun over a week earlier, with police opening fire on protesters, many of whom were workers who had not been paid for months, demanding their wages. Algerians fed up with repression, government authoritarianism, and economic disrepair would protest for the following weeks, over 1,100 people would be arrested, and the government would be forced to cut food prices.
That week would see housing protests in Libya, and protests for higher wages in Oman. All this led some to wonder if we were witnessing the beginning of an “Arab awakening“. Protests in Jordan would erupt, over rising prices and unemployment. Some estimate Jordanian unemployment as high as 30% — while Amman, Jordan’s capital, has one of the highest standards of living in the Arab world.
Next, Albania would see its own Tunisia-style protest, with three people killed and over 30 wounded on the streets of the capital Tirana January 21 when police open fire on a 20,000-strong march. Albanians were calling for the resignation of the new conservative government, who they are accusing of corruption and election-rigging. And now, Yemen is the newest country to see its share of popular unrest, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets to protest the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh. Yemeni people’s discontentment with unemployment and political repression have brought some to say that Yemen is on the brink of civil war.
Is this the beginning of the year of revolution? Will 2011 be the year that civil unrest topples every regime that the people view as unjust?
While every progressive loves to wax romantic about “the people” taking “the power” from “the man”, many of these revolutions may prove toxic. Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood is already uniting with the political opposition there, meaning a power vacuum could put a framework of even greater repression in place. Removing Ali Abdullah Saleh from power in Yemen may satisfy some in the Yemeni population — but this would decidedly not include Yemen’s fragile Jewish population, who were saved from certain massacre numerous times by the Saleh administration’s intervention.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is staying conspicuously absent from the growing unrest there, but in the event of a power vacuum, could easily become a key player in any future Egyptian framework. Even since being officially banned by the government, the party has enjoyed popular affections that could be played upon in any future coalition. This is not to mention Israel — if there’s no Mubarak, there’s no guarantee of any peace treaties or past agreements being honored.
And we’ve already seen what this spirit of revolution has brought us here in America — a Congress full of tea baggers, conspiracy theorists, and Islamophobes like Allen West. Inspiring the masses bring the risk that all the wrong people will put their inspiration into motion.
2011 will definitely be a year where the people’s voice is heard. What the people have to say, however, remains yet to be seen.