SOMEONE ELSE’S WINDOWS: Dealing with the unrest in the Middle East by H. Marcos C. Mordeno

BANGKOK, Thailand (MindaNews/18 February) – The people’s uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have triggered a chain reaction in other countries of the Arab world, forcing major powers to map out strategies in dealing with the sudden, if unexpected, upsurge in popular demands for changes in these countries’ political systems.

Encouraged by the success of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, people in Iran, Libya and Bahrain have likewise taken to the streets. Pro-government lawmakers in Iran responded by demanding the execution of their colleagues in the opposition, formerly regarded as a non-entity in Iranian politics. But the threats have failed to dampen the protesters, a sign that discontent over the country’s cleric-dominated politics may have reached a terminal point.

Before the shouts of defiance echoed in the streets of Tunisia and Egypt, perhaps nobody had the slightest idea that many of their citizens could muster enough courage to demand Mubarak’s resignation. Nobody could have thought furthermore that the phenomenon of people power would shake the rulers of these countries given their tight control not only on political processes but also on media and on their readiness to apply extreme measures against dissent. Observers attributed the evolution of the uprisings to the role played by the internet, in particular that of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg refused however to grab most of the credit for the political awakening in these countries. He viewed the events in a self-effacing manner. As quoted by BBC, he said he would like to believe that the greatest factor has been the determination of the people [to demand change]. Yet, one should venture further: what element made the people so desperate they found enough courage to rise up and say that enough is enough?

Not to discount the political or ideological dimension of the protests, but even the most astute ideologues would admit that polemics alone will not work; they need issues closest to the target populations to ensure their participation in mass movements.

In the case of these Arab states, while the demands have been political, news reports by BBC that aired the sentiments of the protesters pointed to growing economic difficulties as the roots of the spreading unrest. As one Egyptian protester emphatically declared, “[Hosni] Mubarak has destroyed this country socially and economically,” a declaration reinforced by the sight of hundreds of ordinary people in a place near the Giza pyramids queuing for food.

These scenes bring back to mind the revolt in Romania in late 1989 against the Ceausescu regime which was also sparked by economic difficulties. While media reports mainly linked the regime’s downfall to its repressive political system, they omitted the fact that the fuse that ignited it was President Nicolae Ceausescu’s disastrous measures that bled the economy dry and left nothing for food and basic services. One of these was his decision to repay Romania’s foreign debt by devoting much of the country’s agricultural and industrial production to exports, creating domestic shortages that led to a steep decline in living standards. Creditor banks applauded but hungry Romanians raged and executed him and hanged his body upside down.

Angry Arabs may do the same to their leaders but that’s the least of our concern in as far as developments in the Middle East are concerned. Of paramount significance to the Philippines is the impact of these events on thousands of migrant workers in the region and on thousands more who are planning to work there, a factor which would impact heavily on an economy that relies considerably on remittances from its foreign workforce.

If the convulsions now plaguing Egypt and its neighbors should spread further and continue indefinitely, the Philippines may not be in a position to deal with the specter of thousands of overseas workers returning home without alternative jobs. Multiply their number with that of the dependents they have to feed and send to school, and that’s the magnitude of the problem government will have to face.

How prepared is government to handle this problem and its possible social as well as political implications? (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. H. Marcos C. Mordeno can be reached at