By Jackson Diehl
Monday, April 21, 2008
It's well known that the run-up in oil prices in recent years has had the unpleasant consequence of enlivening autocrats in oil-producing countries, from Vladimir Putin and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hugo Chávez. Now the latest swing in global commodities seems to be triggering a reverse effect: As prices for bread and rice soar, dictators are tottering.
Oddly, one of them is Chávez, who lost a constitutional referendum in December partly because of the combination of soaring food prices and shortages he has inflicted on Venezuela. Another is Robert Mugabe, who to his surprise lost a presidential election in Zimbabwe three weeks ago, though he has yet to admit it. According to the U.N. World Food Program, the government of North Korea faces another food crisis; bread prices explain in part why Pervez Musharraf lost control of Pakistan's government in February.
Then there is Egypt, where the link between food and freedom -- or the lack of it -- has never been clearer. For more than half a century, the Arab world's most populous country has been run by a military-backed dictatorship that has supplied its millions of poor with subsidized bread. Consequently, Egypt consumes more bread per capita than France, and the only time the regime's power was seriously challenged came in 1977, when Anwar Sadat's attempt to cut bread subsidies provoked bloody riots.
Thirty years later, Egypt still has subsidized bread but also a free market, which siphons much of the bread away through corruption. As global prices have soared in the past year, cheap bread has been disappearing from Egyptian shops, and free-market prices have risen 48 percent. The predictable result came on April 6, when workers at the country's largest textile factory, in the city of Mahalla el-Kubra, attempted to strike, only to be blocked by a massive deployment of security forces. Angry crowds took to the streets for two days. Schools and shops were burned, a huge billboard of President Hosni Mubarak was torn down and at least two people were killed when police opened fire.
Mubarak responded to the trouble the way the regime always has. His prime minister and a host of other officials rushed to the smoldering city to purchase peace. The textile workers were promised a month's bonus pay and new health-care facilities for their town. Mubarak ordered the army to begin baking and distributing more bread and lifted tariffs on some food imports. Meanwhile, his prosecutors brought charges against some 150 people blamed for the unrest.
In the past this mix of bribes and force has served to restore the status quo. It may work this time as well. But Egypt's latest bread crisis comes on the heels of a pro-democracy movement that was born three years ago, ahead of Mubarak's last rigged presidential election, and that has survived despite repeated government crackdowns. The price of bread has triggered its revival -- and prompted the first, tentative alliance between Egypt's angry workers and its alienated middle class.
Learning of plans for the Mahalla strike, a loose alliance of civic activists called for a parallel national strike the same day -- to be carried out at home. Lacking access to state media, they used cellphones and the Internet to get their message across. They drew up a manifesto, which called not only for decent wages and lower prices but also for "a functional and independent judiciary," "freedom and dignity" and an end to "torture in police stations."
A 27-year-old Cairo activist named Esraa Abdel Fattah established a Facebook group advertising the strike. By April 6 it had more than 62,000 members, almost all of them Egyptians using their real names and openly pledging their support. (According to Egyptian activists, more than 700,000 Egyptians now have Facebook accounts.) Notably, this was a secular movement -- the Muslim Brotherhood, the banned Islamist party that Mubarak claims is the only alternative to his government, refused to back the strike.
When April 6 dawned, Cairo's normally gridlocked streets were strikingly free of traffic, according to both Egyptian and foreign journalists. So were those of Alexandria and other major cities. Egypt had seen what might be the birth of a new political movement, which one commentator called "the Facebook party."
The party might not last. Abdel Fattah was arrested, along with more than 50 members of the Kifaya ("Enough") movement, which was formed in 2005 to create pressure for democratic elections to replace Mubarak. Last week, after her release was ordered by a state prosecutor, the Facebook hostess was rearrested under Egypt's state security law. But her group isn't dead: The April 6 Facebook page had grown to more than 72,000 members by yesterday, and more than 5,000 had joined a group called "Free Esraa." A new national strike has already been scheduled -- for May 4, Mubarak's 80th birthday. Will those hungry for bread join those famished for democracy? That could truly spoil the old man's party.