Josh Haner/The New York Times
Anyone who’s long followed the Middle East knows that the six most dangerous words after any cataclysmic event in this region are: “Things will never be the same.” After all, this region absorbed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of Google without a ripple.
But traveling through Israel, the West Bank and Jordan to measure the shock waves from Egypt, I’m convinced that the forces that were upholding the status quo here for so long — oil, autocracy, the distraction of Israel, and a fear of the chaos that could come with change — have finally met an engine of change that is even more powerful: China, Twitter and 20-year-olds.
Of course, China per se is not fueling the revolt here — but China and the whole Asian-led developing world’s rising consumption of meat, corn, sugar, wheat and oil certainly is. The rise in food and gasoline prices that slammed into this region in the last six months clearly sharpened discontent with the illegitimate regimes — particularly among the young, poor and unemployed.
This is why every government out here is now rushing to increase subsidies and boost wages — even without knowing how to pay for it, or worse, taking it from capital budgets to build schools and infrastructure. King Abdullah II of Jordan just gave every soldier and civil servant a $30-a-month pay raise, along with new food and gasoline subsidies. Kuwait’s government last week announced a “gift” of about $3,500 to each of Kuwait’s 1.1 million citizens and about $850 million in food subsidies.
But China is a challenge for Egypt and Jordan in other ways. Several years ago, I wrote about Egyptian entrepreneurs who were importing traditional lanterns for Ramadan — with microchips in them that played Egyptian folk songs — from China. When China can make Egyptian Ramadan toys more cheaply and appealingly than low-wage Egyptians, you know there is problem of competitiveness.
Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Tunisia today are overflowing with the most frustrated cohort in the world — “the educated unemployables.” They have college degrees on paper but really don’t have the skills to make them globally competitive. I was just in Singapore. Its government is obsessed with things as small as how to better teach fractions to third graders. That has not been Hosni Mubarak’s obsession.
I look at the young protesters who gathered in downtown Amman today, and the thousands who gathered in Egypt and Tunis, and my heart aches for them. So much human potential, but they have no idea how far behind they are — or maybe they do and that’s why they’re revolting. Egypt’s government has wasted the last 30 years — i.e., their whole lives — plying them with the soft bigotry of low expectations: “Be patient. Egypt moves at its own pace, like the Nile.” Well, great. Singapore also moves at its own pace, like the Internet.
The Arab world has 100 million young people today between the ages of 15 and 29, many of them males who do not have the education to get a good job, buy an apartment and get married. That is trouble. Add in rising food prices, and the diffusion of Twitter, Facebook and texting, which finally gives them a voice to talk back to their leaders and directly to each other, and you have a very powerful change engine.
I have not been to Jordan for a while, but my ears are ringing today with complaints about corruption, frustration with the king and queen, and disgust at the enormous gaps between rich and poor. King Abdullah, who sacked his cabinet last week and promised real reform and real political parties, has his work cut out for him. And given some of the blogs that my friends here have shared with me from the biggest local Web site,Ammonnews.net, the people are not going to settle for the same-old, same-old. They say so directly now, dropping the old pretense of signing antigovernment blog posts as “Mohammed living in Sweden.”
Jordan is not going to blow up — today. The country is balanced between East Bank Bedouin tribes and West Bank Palestinians, who fought a civil war in 1970. “There is no way that the East Bankers would join with the Palestinians to topple the Hashemite monarchy,” a retired Jordanian general remarked to me. But this balance also makes reform difficult. The East Bankers overwhelmingly staff the army and government jobs. They prefer the welfare state, and hate both “privatization” and what they call “the digitals,” the young Jordanian techies pushing for reform. The Palestinians dominate commerce but also greatly value the stability the Hashemite monarchy provides.
Egypt was definitely a wake-up call for Jordan’s monarchy. The king’s challenge going forward is to convince his people that “their voices are going to be louder in the voting booth than in the street,” said Salah Eddin al-Bashir, a member of Jordan’s Senate.
As for Cairo, I think the real story in Egypt today is the 1952 revolution, led from the top by the military, versus the 2011 revolution, led from below by the people. The Egyptian Army has become a huge patronage system, with business interests and vast perks for its leaders. For Egypt to have a happy ending, the army has to give up some of its power and set up a fair political transition process that gives the Egyptian center the space to build precisely what Mubarak refused to permit — legitimate, independent, modernizing, secular parties — that can compete in free elections against the Muslim Brotherhood, now the only authentic party.
If that happens, I am not the least bit worried about the Muslim Brotherhoods in Jordan or Egypt hijacking the future. Actually, they should be worried. The Brotherhoods have had it easy in a way. They had no legitimate secular political opponents. The regimes prevented that so they could tell the world it is either “us or the Islamists.” As a result, I think, the Islamists have gotten intellectually lazy. All they had to say was “Islam is the answer” or “Hosni Mubarak is a Zionist” and they could win 20 percent of the vote. Now, if Egypt and Jordan can build a new politics, the Muslim Brotherhood will, for the first time, have real competition from the moderate center in both countries — and they know it.
“If leaders don’t think in new ways, there are vacancies for them in museums,” said Zaki Bani Rsheid, political director of Jordan’s Islamic Action Front, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm. When I asked Rsheid if his own party was up for this competition, he stopped speaking in Arabic and said to me in English, with a little twinkle in his eye: “Yes we can.”
I hope so, and I also hope that events in Egypt and Jordan finally create a chance for legitimate modern Arab democratic parties to test him.