Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Turmoil in North Africa

Thomas Hobbes was a seventeenth century political philosopher who wrote the seminal treatise, Leviathan.  The most famous principle from this work, the social contract, sets the foundation for man to leave a "state of nature" and enter into "civil society", consenting to be governed.  If man rejects the social contract, his choice is to remain living in a "state of nature", which means "...each person would have a right, or license, to everything in the world".  This ends up leading to a "war of all against all" and "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" lives.
What does a seventeenth century English political philosopher have to do with North Africa?  Several things.

Today marked the twentieth anniversary of the fall of government in Somalia.  In that 20 years, as the linked article from the Post relates, a whole generation has grown up in anarchy.  Children wake up to the sound of gunfire every morning.  The young man in the article lost his mother after a gang invaded a neighbor's home and she ran out to help her neighbor.  There is rampant poverty.  Survival is each child's only form of education.  Warlords and gangs fight each other in the streets and roadblocks are set up everywhere, controlled by bribes and intimidation.  Foreign Al-Qaeda fighters stream into the country, becoming the new training ground for foreign terrorists (which attacked Russia this week).  It is the definition of man in a state of nature.  The lives of the people are "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short", and there are few signs for any kind of hope of order being restored.

And as Somalia marked the downfall of its government, two other countries have erupted in mass protests against the autocratic regimes that rule their countries.  The people of Tunisia and Egypt have taken the world by surprise and are protesting the regimes that have ruled their countries for 30+ years with the hopes of overthrowing them and establishing more representative governments.  Tunisia actually has already ousted its leader, Ben-Ali who has fled to Saudi Arabia.

Mubarak, the current leader of Egypt is essentially a dictator.  More than 60 percent of the Egyptian population is unemployed under his regime.  It is a level that is put into perspective when you remember that the United States is currently experiencing a 10 percent unemployment rate, thereby making the Egyptian unemployment session 6 times as worse as it is currently in our own country.  And along with unemployment, the Egyptian people have suffered under political oppression for over 30 years.  Yet the government of Mubarak, that has been in power since the assassination of Anwar Al-Sadat, has been unprecedentedly supported by the United States government.  Along with Israel, Egypt has received more than a third of all foreign aid provided by the United States.  It is an amount that totals to around $1billion a year.  A billion of our tax dollars has gone into the pockets of Mubarak and his allies.

The protesters in the streets of Egypt are calling for an end to the oppression and poverty that they have lived with under Mubarak.  Emboldened by their counterpart in Tunisia, they have risen up, demanding a new democratic form of government that clearly represents the population - both Muslim and Christian.

And this presents the United States with a conundrum.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did issue a statement today calling upon the Mubarak government to let the protests happen peacefully, but that is all.  In my opinion, the Obama administration faces one of its most important foreign policy tests in how it handles this development in this region.  Will it continue to give billions of dollars of aid to a country when it cannot guarantee stability and a strategic alliance?  I think it will depend upon whether or not a transition of government occurs and how it occurs - whether these popular protests succeed or not.  At the most, there is the chance that these developments in Tunisia and Egypt have the potential to prove another political theory, the democratic peace theory - and that would be a worthy investment of any foreign aid.

Perhaps this is where the people of Somalia could find a reason to hope.  That when a population rises up together, forgoing religious and ethnic differences, they can establish a social contract with each other for a reasonable government.  I hope that some day in my lifetime there will be improvements in that country that will afford the citizens a chance for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  That no more generations will grow up in a state of perpetual anarchy.

(Footnote - Even though I make no mention of Lebanon in this post, there has been a huge development in that country as well with Iranian-backed Hezbollah taking control of the government.  Afghanistan is suffering its own woes with a deadlocked parliament.  And Palestinians are taking to the streets in Gaza in response to leaked documents from Mohammed Abbas on his negotiating positions with the Israelis, further derailing any kind of talks between the two nations. I wish that the 24hr news networks would report on these issues and give them the kind of attention and detailed analysis that they give to a remark by Sarah Palin or on a book about a method of parenting.

Also, to get more insight into the plight and situation of the Somalians from a Somali, I suggest that you listen to the raps of K'Naan, a Somali-Canadian hip-hop artist who doesn't hold back from describing the living situation that he came from.)

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