Bread and Butter

By Tex

Letter to Uncle Sam

Dear Uncle

If at all the West think they have any lesson to learn from anybody (normally they have nothing to learn from others…) from the unfolding situation and civilian uprising in the Arab world, it should not be too far from this reality – they cannot claim credit for the Tunisian revolt, which then spread, as fire does in cane fields here, to the whole region.

This development has confirmed that arms and ammunitions can at times become obsolete and unnecessary tools if democracy and freedom and human rights issues are to be genuinely promoted with some chance of success.

Uncle, the US can certainly claim credit for their business acumen, creativity and innovation for having successfully transformed the world into a global village through IT technology and communication gadgets. These tools, and not arms and ammunition, have outmanoeuvred the “savaks” (secret political police) of the regimes shaken by popular uprising and street protests. Al-Jazeera, an Arab version of CNN, has also outmanoeuvred State TV bent to do news breaking with propaganda.

We need to put one important thing in context. In Tunisia the start of the street protests had nothing to do with issues like democracy, freedom. The popular revolt started and firmly stood on this fact – what Main Street there had perceived as a sign of injustice. The treatment inflicted by public authorities upon a street vegetable vendor and following his self-immolation was seen as a sign of this injustice. This story was only about bread and butter. Much later, when the public protests gathered momentum, its supporters added other issues on the list of their To-Do list – claim for democracy, freedom, jobs and affordable food.

Again, we need to put some other things in context. For one or two exceptions, most Arab countries have been blessed with geography, history, natural resources, people, culture and tradition. Many share deep roots with historical facts connected with ancient civilization and the history of human beings on earth, as travellers or conquerors or builders or fighters or nomads.

Between World War I and II and after, human ingenuity put the Arab world on the world atlas map for oil. And then, during the last six decades, this blessed region got engulfed into the ruthless game of power and politics, feudal power and monarchy and kingdom; while Communism and Capitalism, Western and Eastern bloc fought their Cold War on foreign grounds most of the time. The culture of arms and ammunition, the race towards possessing more of them, became the order of the day. Petrodollars did the rest.

And then, Uncle, several simple things were sidelined and several simple things were pursued as a matter of policy. As opposed to the Western and Eastern bloc which had on their back their own Cold War to look after, many Arab countries, including those now under serious threat of popular revolt, had designed policies to export their own version of green socialism, green democracy, green freedom, and of course, their own interpretation and understanding of everything connected with many of God’s gift to humanity, including Islam. On many issues, petrodollars did the talking to convince their interlocutors of the righteousness of their policies.

Second. During the past 60 years or so, the Palestine people were left on their own with no clear regional policy and consensus and unity to move forward to correct the great injustice done to the Palestinians. The great Arab division did a great disservice to the Palestine people and to their legitimate dream of securing peace through a Palestine State. The rest is still history in the making.

Third. During almost the same period, those in power in most Arab “democracies”, kingdoms and monarchies kept enjoying all the privileges and benefits made affordable by petrodollars. Their collection of Mercedes and BMW cars are commensurate to their status.

Fourth. Many among those privileged few were first-class travellers; five-star clients whenever they set themselves on any shopping spree in any five-star destination. To avoid queuing up at airports to catch a departing or a connecting flight, private jets were mobilised to make the trip comfortable.

Uncle, this is part of the realities of most Arab “democracies”, kingdoms and monarchies. There is an old wisdom that says that natural resources of a country belong to its people and not to those in power. An old wisdom also suggests that public money is like “zakaat” money, meaning sacred, and it should be spent to do common good.

And this is exactly where the policy failure lies. The common people in most Arab States were left to fend for themselves in their fight against poverty, unemployment, social injustice and unaffordable food and over the years these started to affect their family life and quality thereof. They were denied any right to collectively raise their voices even if these were meant to fall on deaf ears. Uncle, nothing best illustrates this Arab hopelessness than the predicament of the Tunisian vegetable street vendor.

And the common man’s perception of what is just and fair in society and in life or public life in general cannot be underestimated; even when their measure of comparison is often based from what they see and witnessed; what they live and feel. And the common man’s perception of reality rarely fails them.

As you know, in politics no vacuum is politically sustainable; in real life too, injustice becomes unsustainable once they are brought to the notice of the common man. And this is precisely what helped and accelerated the public protest in Tunisia.

From here, Uncle, we think we have a number of lessons to learn from the prevailing situation still full of uncertainty though. When one put all of the above-mentioned facts in balance, we come to these conclusions: No nation on Earth should take its people for granted. None should think that political or economic power or any power — whether within a democracy, a pseudo democracy, a monarchy or kingdom – can be used at all times to suppress the voices, dreams and aspirations of the common man. None should deny the common man his daily bread and butter even when official stats and maths suggest the contrary. At the same time when these figures also suggest that the super rich pay themselves obscene bonuses and profits, get away with their fiscal responsibility through legal loopholes or accountancy dressing and above all when they enjoy notorious tax cuts – like those lavished upon the rich under George W. Bush’s White House or under our local Illovo or IRS deals.

You see, Uncle, the unfolding situation within many Arab States during the past weeks and months suggest how important Main Street is; how important it is to make sure that policies and politics do not fail their common aspirations and dreams; and also how important it is for Wall Street to tame their lust for money and money and money. We are back to the inhuman face of Globalisation.

* Published in print edition on 3 March 2011

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