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Analysis: Could the Middle East “Jasmine Revolution” spread to America? Should it?

Grass fire

The grassfire Arab revolt sparked last December in Tunisia by the self-immolation suicide of a poor, abused fruit seller is now being called the Jasmine Revolution, apparently because the media likes to color code these kind of things.

Like Iran’s green revolution (which failed) and Ukraine’s orange revolution (which succeeded).

Right now, most of the attention is on Libya where Muammar Gaddafi (or Gadhafi, or Mallomar Godzilla, however you want to spell his name) is waging war on his own people, trying to turn back the tide of political reform.

Many say how this violent struggle plays out in Libya — if Gaddafi holds on to power, the country splits or the rebels win — could determine the course of events for the entire democracy movement in the Middle East.

The Jasmine Revolution is often characterized as a pro-democracy movement.

Libya is center-stage at the moment but the fires still smolder, and occasionally erupt, in Tunisia, Egypt and throughout the region, as people seek real change. Here’s an interactive map of the region by the BBC (below is screen grab image only):

Map of the Arab revolt

The revolution could be contagious. That’s why the Chinese government is doing everything it can to squelch a flowering Jasmine Revolution in its own backyard, which has included rounding up foreign journalists.

But if you look at how this popular uprising started in Tunisia, and what fuels it, you need to look a little deeper beneath this push for democracy.

In the same way some made the mistake of overly crediting the Arab Revolt to new media tools such as Twitter or Facebook, it may be a mistake to say this is simply a fight for democracy.

Democracy will be critical to its success. But perhaps it is better seen as just a tool, as the means to a more fundamental end desired by the revolutionaries.

Nobody can say now, but I suspect the reason the 26-year-old Tunisian fruit seller Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire outside a government building had little to do with his views on politics.

From the stories about Bouazizi, it seems pretty clear it was because he was poor and had suffered repeated setbacks due to a highly inequitable and corrupt system. His act of desperation was based on poverty and humiliation.

Many of the reports out of Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world have noted that the explosion of unrest was significantly fueled by a spike in food prices, coupled with high unemployment and an indifferent political elite. It was finally all too much, and people poured into the streets.

Yes, the protesters shouted and carried signs about freedom, democracy and the evils of dictatorship. But those make for better slogans than the price of bread or unemployment statistics.Behind the slogans, the root cause of the uprising was that people were living in poverty — struggling to buy food even — while the ruling political and economic elite amassed their fortunes and lived in luxury.

To paraphrase the old Bill Clinton campaign motto: It’s about the inequity, stupid!

As Americans, we’re lucky to live in a free, democratic and relatively wealthy society. Most of us in the United States don’t suffer from anything like the hardships experienced by many of those now willing to risk their lives to achieve political change across the Middle East and parts of Africa.

But an increasing number of Americans do live a hard life these days.

The gap between the rich and poor in our nation is at Depression-era levels, and economists say it is widening. This graphic below is based on data from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office. It shows gains in income over the past quarter century by Americans, according to economic status:

Income gains between 1979 and 2005 by economic status

As the gap between the rich and the poor in the U.S. keeps widening, many of the other indicators of inequity that set the Middle East aflame can be seen here as well:

  • Unemployment remains high.
  • Big and growing gap between the rich and poor.
  • Most of us have lost big chunks of our retirement security (or our homes) due to the mortgage meltdown — even as Wall Streets’ profit margins appear to have recovered nicely.
  • The average CEO makes 185 times more than the average American worker.
  • Our working-age kids are staring at a jobs market that looks more like a battlefield than a landscape of opportunity.

I’m not trying to compare the plight of many in the Middle East with our problems. And I’m not calling for a revolution or anything. They often turn out bad. We’re a long way off from judging whether the Jasmine Revolution is going to actually improve things in the Middle East.

I’m just saying that when we watch these people on the other side of the planet fighting for freedom and democracy, we should keep in mind what these people are fighting for and why. It is the desire for basic fairness and justice that is at the root of this crisis.

Our own society is growing increasingly inequitable. I wonder if this is what blinded us to the level of instability in the Middle East that eventually erupted. Are we, in a global sense, like those frogs swimming in a slowly heating pan of water not noticing it coming closer to a boil?

As Martin Luther King Jr. said many years ago:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”


On Sunday, Fareed Zakaria hosted a CNN special called “Restoring the American Dream” and wrote an accompanying article at TIME called “Are America’s Best Days Behind Us?

Zakaria (in print and on TV) talks about the competitive global marketplace, the need for improvements in education, more investment in science and innovation, efficiency in government, more nimble corporations … and all those same sorts of things you’ve probably heard before.

The CNN special begins with him asking top CEOs from GE, Google and Coca-Cola to define the problem and suggest solutions. Not exactly a diversity of viewpoints. Maybe part of the problem.

You can read or view for yourself, but I’d say Zakaria took a fairly narrow, if predictable, look at the problem and dodged the more uncomfortable reasons why the U.S. has such high and increasing rates of social and economic inequity. At one point, he writes in Time:

The countries of Northern Europe — Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland — have created a fascinating and mixed model of political economy. Their economies are extremely open and market-based. Most of them score very high on the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom. But they also have generous welfare states and make major investments for future growth. Over the past 20 years, these countries have grown nearly as fast as, or in some cases faster than, the U.S. Germany has managed to retain its position as the world’s export engine despite high wages and generous benefits.

Oddly, Zakaria repeatedly cites the Northern European countries for their superior educational performance, solid middle-class (ours is shrinking), their better health indicators and other positive socioeconomic trends — but then simply dismisses the idea that we should adopt their approach:

Now, America should not and cannot simply copy the Nordic model or any other. Americans would rebel at the high taxes that Northern Europeans pay…. The American system is more dynamic, entrepreneurial and unequal than that of Europe and will remain so. But the example of Northern Europe shows that rich countries can stay competitive if they remain flexible, benchmark rigorously and embrace efficiency.

Maybe the problem here is that Zakaria and many other pundits seem unable to shake the basic assumption that — as he says — in America we fully accept, and even celebrate, inequity.

That argument reminds me of all those people who used to say Arabs don’t want democracy.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.