Sunday, March 18, 2012

Arab Spring – More than just being Pro-Democratic

A common man takes to the streets when an absolute extreme has been reached and his voice has been suppressed for long. TIME magazine declared the year 2011 as the year that solely belonged to the protestor. Right from those who gathered in hordes in Tahrir Square to the ones who clumped up as they initiated the OWS (Occupy Wall Street) movement to our own version of rebellion that erupted in the form of Lokpal Movement, this was an unabated wave that simply refused to subside. It’s very tenor shook the regime giving rise to a new order altogether ushering in a change that was due for long in the Arab region.

“Let’s be realistic, demand the impossible”, these were the thumping words from the man who is often associated with rebellion at its best, yes, Che Guevara. Indeed it was the impossible that men and women gathered on streets were demanding, they wanted their rulers to pack their bags and looked forward to see the autocracy breathing its last. Tunisia emerged as the cradle of this revolution where it was self- immolation of an unemployed youth, Mohammad Bouazizi in December 2010 that sparked the first wave of protests. While Ben Ali the man at the helm of affairs in Tunisia fled to Saudi Arabia, the verve of protests crossed all barriers as it went viral literally!

Soon it was the turn of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt who had mistaken the chair of highest authority as his comfy cuddling zone wherein reins were being planned to be transferred to his son. Unfortunately Egypt was into the vicious grip of the ‘emergency law’ since 1967 with Mubarak pitching in through a coup in 1981. Jasmine revolution, the name being attributed to series of mass protests, owing to Jasmine, which is the national flower of Tunisia. President Abdullah Saleh, also witnessed the walloping after having the remote in hand of Yemen for 33-years. Panjandrums enjoying the liberty of callous Head of State were in for another shock when Muammar Qaddafi’s terrain was encroached upon by NATO forces in Libya the hurricane now surging towards Syria; it was March 2011.

Another nomenclature associated with this phenomenon is that of Arab Spring, the term drawing its inspiration from the classic Prague Spring of 1968. Even that was an attempt on behalf of Alexander Dubcek to democratize the asphyxiating system and be able to release pressure with respect to media, speech and travel in Czechoslovakia. However the genes of Arab Spring beg to differ from its parent wafture in that it was not solely aimed at merely acquiring the democratic status, it had more to it than what was visible to the naked eye.

While many might repudiate this contention holding the pro-democracy card close to their hearts, well, thanks to the orgy played by media, but yes it wasn’t just about majority rule. The four-letter word that fuelled and incinerated the masses was FOOD. Let’s take the example of Libya which has a population of about 6.4 million people and to feed them, Qaddafi’s erstwhile regime is compelled to import 500,000 tons of wheat flour as they don’t produce any wheat at all! Add to that tons of macaroni and pastry and about 1 mmt. of wheat. No wonder that makes Libya the largest wheat importer per capita, the barter revolving around export of oil and import of carbohydrates.

Dependency on grain imports follows similar trend when one moves to Egypt and Tunisia. Now a layman would be wondering what does that mean. For any country what matters the most is Balance of Trade which is calculated as the difference between the monetary value of exports and imports, now definitely large amount of imports would lead to Trade Deficit. That doesn’t surprise anyone when these facts are corroborated with a drastic increase in food prices. The food basket of households in such countries falling in regions of North Africa and West Asia is dear and has galloped even more over the past few years. According to UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), global food prices have surged by 83% on an average over the past decade.

Another perspective of this fiery debate has got to do with ‘financialisation’ of food that is reflected in the form of money invested on commodities. The food price index in 2011 reached the 233 mark crossing its deadly predecessor of 200 in 2008; food price index being the figure calculated by FAO that indicates the monthly change in international prices of a group of selected commodities. The deluge of facts & figures combined with the recurring events are in fact linked to each other. Very few of you might clearly remember that 2008 was the year that marked food riots in several countries like Somalia, Senegal, Latin America, Burkina Faso, Cameroon; Egypt and Yemen also being one amongst them. Perhaps your attention was caught up in the bloody mistake done by bankers in Europe that led to recession in that particular year.

Lethal weapons in this case turned out to be financial instruments of portfolio investment and speculation. Hyperinflation of food staples is majorly caused by influx of money into the commodity markets by institutional investors. Index Funds that had $ 13 billion invested in commodities in 2003 had reached to a whopping $ 317 billion by 2008. What is feared is the quadrupling of this figure to $ 1 trillion if Pension Funds allocate a large portion of theirs to the commodities which it would fall for readily, the insecurity being expressed by Sinclair Stewart and Paul Waldie in an article in the Toronto Globe in May, 2008. Thus the inadvertent and self-created ‘demand shock’ on one hand is responsible for starvation of millions while it swells the bank accounts of those who’ve invested and speculated wisely.

But then it hasn’t turned out to be a cinch even for Uncle Sam. As P. Sainath points out in a lecture being delivered at the Austin indymedia independent media center, a revelation being made by a report on Food Security on behalf of USDA (United States Department of Agriculture). 2009 in USA marked the year when highest number of people became victims of food insecurity such that one in every seven American household had difficulty in providing food to all its members.

One cannot help but recollect words from the song, Rayes Le Bled performed by Tunisian rapper Hamada Ben Amor who was later arrested for indicting Ben Ali of hunger in the country in his song.

“President of the Country
Your people is dead
People eat in the garbage
Look what’s happening in your country……..”

Arab Spring was a consequence of anger that was bred by factors of poverty, food crisis, unemployment and injustice by tyrants. In a post-revolt milieu what needs to be taken care of is that mistakes are not repeated again. Regulation of markets along with facilitation of basic amenities should not skip the mind of those who have just taken charge of the state. While Lebanon has gone for 40% increase in wages and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has given his nod, allowing women to vote and be elected in the forthcoming 2015 municipal elections, one sincerely hopes this is just the beginning. US and the European Union in the meantime would have to deal with implications of being mute spectators in the entire fray, barring the NATO intervention for sure, the world needs to seek a platform where issues are settled and not scuttled thereby enabling inequities of sorts to be ridden off forever. 

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