People took it to the streets in Egypt on Tuesday, January 25, and they've been on the streets ever since. They've been demanding the removal of President Hosni Mubarak, and agitating for "freedom, democracy, and change". Unemployment is high, economic opportunity is low, and people are so frustrated that they are taking it to the streets. In Egypt, at least 40 percent of the population lives in poverty, on less than $2 a day. The population of 80 million skews young, with an average age of 24 (in contrast, the average age in the US is 36). President Mubarak, at 82, seems out of touch with the population.
The gap is not really about age. It is about class, about employment, about social and economic justice. People are furious that the elites live well while others scratch and scramble for a living. People are appalled at a city called "Garbage City" that has been broadcast on all the networks. As protests escalated, communication was stopped. The Internet was down in Egypt during part of the protests, and cell reception was also knocked out. Despite these obstacles, social networking has connected protestors and kept us at least somewhat informed.
Was the uprising in Egypt expected? It should have been given the uprisings in Tunisia at the end of December. Also fuelled by high unemployment and a high-profile self-immolation, the protest energy in Tunisia led to the exile of President Ben Ali and to a move toward a transition to democracy there. The spark - a man who could not find a job, sold fruit on the street, but had his produce confiscated because he did not have a permit to sell. Thousands vowed to avenge his death at his funeral, and when they took it to the streets, they sparked a movement for democracy and economic justice. And perhaps they also galvanized a region.
Despots have a way of invoking fear. They have a way of quelling opposition before it even galvanizes. A harrowing self-immolation in Tunisia pushed thousands into the streets there, and they succeeded in removing Ben Ali. The Tunisian protest may have emboldened and empowered others, because actions in Tunisia made it clear that despotic power is not absolute in the face of popular opposition. If Tunisia sparked Egypt, what will Egypt spark? The reverberations may not only be felt in the Arab world, but also in sub-Saharan Africa, where there are also despots and dictatorships, a growing gap between the wealthy and the impoverished. If people are able to remove despots in Tunisia and Egypt, what will prevent them from removing those who do not encourage democracy in other parts of the African continent?
It is important to note that these protests are both political and economic. People want democracy, and they also want an opportunity to participate in a vibrant economy. They want to work, they want to thrive, and they are clear that the playing field is not level; that the elites extract surplus value from them, and that their lives will not change until the economic rules change.
The United States dances on a dime with Egypt. We are a democracy, we support democracy, and President Obama has pushed President Mubarak on these matters. President Mubarak has been disingenuous in dissolving his cabinet, appointing a military Vice President, and sending tanks to the streets. We appreciate Egypt because they have stood in the gap for us in the Middle East. Yet, as a democracy, we must support cries for freedom and economic justice.
When I reflect on the fact that people in Tunisia and Egypt have taken it to the streets on economic issues, I wonder about economic justice in the United States. While we have the possibility of political participation that both Egypt and Tunisia lack, there are sectors of our population that feel as marginalized around employment issues. The official unemployment rate, of 9.4 percent in December, can translate to as high as 28 percent for African Americans. And yet, president Obama's State of the Union Address addressed unemployment, but did not directly address issues of poverty. Those who were listening had to be frustrated that our leader did not give even a nod to their pain. Will this frustration ever spill into the streets? Will we ever demand social and economic justice with the same vigor as the Egyptian people? There are many differences between the situation in the US and that in Egypt, but the frustration over poverty and economic injustice is universal.
Dr. Julianne Malveaux is a noted economist and president of Bennett College for Women.