The self-immolation of Tunisian Mohamed Buazizi in December triggered off protests that brought down a 24-year-old dictatorship in that country and inspired similar protests in neighbouring countries.
Buazizi, a 26-year-old computer science graduate and unemployed street vendor, carried out his drastic act in protest at having his only source of income — his produce — confiscated by police.
This embodies just how much the combination of unemployment, spiralling food prices and brutal repression has become a potent cocktail of discontent that has exploded across the Arab world.
This volatile cocktail is the direct consequence of the world capitalist system, which is now mired in a deep crisis.
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Within this system, United States imperialism has increasingly sought in recent decades to further integrate the North African and Middle Eastern economies into the global system of rampant neoliberalism.
To enforce this, the US has helped prop up dictatorial regimes.
Now, with the reawakening of the Arab masses pouring onto the streets across the region, a seismic shift is occurring in global geopolitics.
The final outcome is yet to be determined, but there can be no doubt the US is desperately trying to retake the initiative — and does not discount the option of military invasion and occupation.
Solidarity with this rebellion of millions in motion from Morocco to Iran, passing through Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq and others, is vital.
This means opposing all attempts by US imperialism and its allies, including in Canberra, from trying to stop this process.
Buazizi’s story is not uncommon to young people across the region, where youth unemployment far exceeds official rates of 15%. Many are forced into the “informal sector” to survive.
Unable to find a job, Buazizi eked out a living illegally selling fruit and vegetables.
When authorities confiscated his produce and slapped him across the face, an infuriated Buazizi doused himself in petrol and set himself alight in front of the local governor’s office.
In Algeria, Egypt and Mauritania, similar cases of self-immolation have followed Buazizi’s example.
In early January, riots broke out in Algeria after the government announced food prices would rise once more.
Algeria’s government backtracked, saying it would implement a 41% cut on food taxes. But the protests continue.
On January 25, protests began on Egypt’s streets, leading to a popular uprising that ended the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak.
One of the most prominent groups behind the protests was the April 6 Movement, which traces its origins to the important 2008 strikes by workers in the industrial town of El Mahalla el Kubra against rising food prices, unemployment and police torture.
With a deepening world food crisis, Egypt’s annual food price inflation had jumped from 17.2% in December 2010 to 18.9% in January 2011.
A report released in February by the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture said the world was confronting a more generalised and sharper increase in food prices than the rise that occurred in 2007-08.
In the February 13 Spanish daily La Vanguardia, Andy Robinson said with a 50% increase in basic food prices since mid-2010, the cost of these essential items had surpassed the previous high reached in June 2008.
In a January 19 article posted at SocialistProject.ca titled “Night in Tunisia: Riots, Strikes and a Spreading Insurgency”, David McNally said this new phase of the food crisis is directly linked to another of the crises rocking capitalism: the global economic crisis.
“As banks melted down and the world financial system teetered in 2008-9,” McNally said, “governments in the dominant capitalist nations poured something in the range of $20 trillion into propping up the system and pushed down interest rates …
“With a growing money supply and record low interest rates, there is a huge incentive for investors and speculators to borrow on the cheap in order to buy commodities (and currencies) that look likely to appreciate. So, currencies like the Brazilian real have been soaring, as have prices for basic commodities like food and oil.
“All of this is driving forward a wave of land grabs, particularly in Africa and Latin America, as global corporations and governments, like China’s, buy and lease millions of hectares of arable, drillable and water and mineral rich land.
“The result is yet further waves … that displace indigenous peoples, peasants and farmers and deprive them of means of feeding themselves, thus exacerbating problems of displacement, hunger and poverty.
“Add into the equation two further factors — the increasing use of arable land for the production of biofuels rather than food, and speculation by investors gambling that a poor Russian harvest or floods in Australia will damage food supplies and further drive up prices — and we have all the ingredients for huge price spikes and a new world food crisis.”
North Africa and the Middle East lead the world in dependency on imports of cereals, consuming more than 45% of the world’s wheat production. It is also a region where the population spends 40-50% of its wages on food (compared with 15-20% in Spain).
This means the effect of these price rises was severe.
Ominously, the World Bank has calculated that North Africa and Middle East dependency on food imports will increase by 25% in the next 20 years — and prices will rise at least until 2015.
This dependency is a direct result of British and French colonialism and, after World War II, US imperialism.
As the US empire expanded its power post-WWII and moved to decisively secure its control over the region from British and French colonialism, it was confronted by a wave of nationalist revolts that challenged its interests.
Nationalist governments moved to increase state control over resources such as oil, deemed vital to US interests.
In response, the US used a combination of tactics such as coups against nationalist regimes (Iran), backing Islamic fundamentalist monarchs (Saudi Arabia) and military intervention (Lebanon).
After Israel’s victory in the Israel-Arab 1967 war, the US increasingly relied on an expansionist Israeli military power to defend its regional interests.
Through such moves, the US was able to roll back gains made and pave the way for the rise of compliant, authoritarian regimes. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US moved to further entrench its power and integrate these economies more fully into the world market.
The neoliberal plan included measures such as the privatisation of state-owned companies, the removal of environmental and labour protections, reductions in state spending on services (Egypt spends a measly 1.4% of its national budget on health compared with the global average of 5.8%), and tax cuts for the rich (reduced from 42% to 20% in Egypt in 2004).
In a February 4 Alternet.org article, “The Egyptian Uprising Is a Direct Response to Ruthless Global Capitalism”, Nomi Prins said: “Of the five countries covered by the World Bank's Investment Across Sectors Indicator, Tunisia had the fewest limits on foreign investment.
“It had opened all areas of its economy to foreign equity ownership, except the electricity sector.
“Egypt adopted a similar come-and-get-it policy, on steroids … Mubarak [embarked] on an economic strategy that entailed selling large pieces of Egypt’s banks to the highest international bidder.
“The result was a veritable grab-fest of foreign bank takeovers in the heart of Cairo.”
Prims said: “While foreign banks were setting up shop, Egypt also eliminated the red tape that came with foreign property investment, through decree number 583.
“This transformed the country … into a magnet for global real estate speculation.”
However, with the fall in oil prices in the second half of 2009, foreign banks slashed their capital holdings in Arabic nations.
Egypt earned the praise of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank for following their neoliberal dictates. These institutions praised the fact that Egypt’s economic “boom” resulted in annual growth rate of 7% between 2005 and 2008.
But it did little to improve the lot of the majority of the population.
In his La Vanguardia article, Robinson quoted a French journalist recently returned from Tunis, who said: “The Tunisians that I have spoken to said they were less concerned about bread; their revolution was a moral vindication to say ‘enough!’”
After decades of plundering and subjugation, the people have risen up. In doing so, they are changing the face of the world.
However, unlike the post-WWII era, US imperialism confronts the rebellion in a state of crisis and decline.
It faces a deep economic crisis and is bogged down in wars it cannot win in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It is also being challenged in Latin America, where mass movements have begun to create popular governments independent of imperialism — which in some cases are starting to move in a socialist direction.
The ability for the Arab masses to produce revolutionary leaderships forged through struggle and increase collaboration across the region could prove crucial to how this situation ends.
But also, it depends on whether ordinary people in the US, Australia and other Western nations to take a leaf out of the Arab playbook and rise up too.