Egypt and Afghanistan, Part 1

A little less than a month ago, two very small things happened. Both were mediated to me by the internet in the same place where I’m sitting and typing on my laptop now, in front of my window in the KAIA North barracks in Afghanistan, and I’m still thinking about their intersection.

The first thing: I was listening to an intermittent stream of NPR’s Morning Edition that featured Steve Inskeep interviewing Iranian-American academic Vali Nasr about the Muslim middle class and its role in the revolution in Egypt, and Nasr identified the Muslim middle class as “people who are better off, who want new opportunities, participate in the global economy, and also want the political freedoms that go with it. Those are the people who use the social media.” A little later in the interview, Nasr made a firm distinction between “the free flow of information” and “free economics and integration of these parts of the world into the global economy.” Nasr’s first point struck me as an important one, in a way that was underreported in much of the press: the revolution in Egypt had a strong class-based economic component. His second point struck me as curious: aren’t “the free flow of information” and economic freedom fundamentally related, especially today? Why draw a line between them?

The second thing: a friend asked me, via Facebook, “What do the Afghans over there think about what’s going on in Egypt?” It’s a good question, and one I still don’t really have an answer for. The Afghans I talk to are circumspect about their opinions, and understandably so, I think, given their history. And it’s an important question. There are clear intersections — sometimes oppositional, sometimes parallel — between the democracy-building impulses in the two countries, and clear intersections as well between the interrelations among information, democracy, and economics in the two countries.

Both countries’ struggles with and toward democratic freedoms are simultaneously spurred and inhibited by huge and complex economic problems that go far beyond their enormous and systemic corruption and graft. Part of what I’m going to do here is try to use Egypt as a way to think about Afghanistan (as well as a way to think about the concerns with economics, technology, and literacy that occupy my scholarly practice), so I’ll for the moment take Afghanistan’s economic problems — more than a third of the population unemployed, more than a third of the population living below the poverty line, about three-quarters of the population illiterate, a per capita GDP that ranks 212th out of the world’s 229 nations — as a given, to be returned to and examined later in considerably more detail, using Egypt’s example as an analytical tool.

So first to Egypt, and the Facebook hype.

The habitually excellent Tom Slee (whose No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart, a book about the economics of individual choice, you really ought to read) pointed out on Valentine’s Day that “[t]he ‘Facebook Revolution’ narrative of the Egyptian rebellion is everywhere,” partly because it’s “[t]he easiest story to tell,” especially for relatively privileged Westerners with an interest in the relatively privileged “familiar yet novel world of Facebook and social media.” In a 4,000-word post a few days later, Slee qualified his argument “that the role of digital technologies in the Egyptian rebellion has been overplayed,” noting that “it does look like there is an element of truth to the ‘Facebook Revolution’ story.” Still, like Slee, I remain highly skeptical of the narrative that the revolution in Egypt was a “Facebook Revolution,” although you can find that narrative in many of the places Slee points to and many more besides (albeit with some refreshing alternative perspectives, as well). The narrative I’m most skeptical of is the one that’s gotten the most circulation via a quotation from Wael Gonim that I came across linked to from Slee:

This revolution started online. This revolution started on Facebook. This revolution started in June 2010 when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians started collaborating content. We would post a video on Facebook that would be shared by 60,000 people on their walls within a few hours. I always said that if you want to liberate a society just give them the Internet. If you want to have a free society just give them the Internet.

Well, actually, no. It didn’t. And it wasn’t a “Facebook Revolution,” although it’s pleasant for various relatively privileged Western or Western-employed pundits to think so. It was in large part an economic revolution, and it was a long time coming, although it’s interesting to see how in 2008, a Prospect Magazine article about rising world food prices and the subsidized prices for bread in Egypt begins with a reference to an economic divide that uses the image of wireless networks as a part of its rhetorical appeal:

Drive over the bridge from the green Cairene island of Zamalek, from its tree-lined streets, grand embassy mansions and air-conditioned cappuccino cafés with wi-fi access, across the Nile into the grimy neighbourhood of Boulaq: 15 minutes of battered honking traffic to travel from rich to poor.

In that article, Wendell Steavenson describes “the effects of the surge in the price of global food staples that began in early 2006.

After peaking in June 2008, the UN food price index fell slightly in July and August, but is still up 60 per cent from its value in August 2006. This year there have been food protests all over the world… By spring 2008, the global price of wheat had risen 130 per cent and rice 74 per cent in a year, according to UN Food and Agriculture Organisation figures.

Despite the great fertility of the Nile delta, once the grain basket of the Roman empire, Egypt’s exploding population — there are now more than 80m Egyptians compared to 20m at the end of the second world war — has made the country the largest importer of wheat in the world, sucking in 6m tonnes a year, roughly half its national requirement. Egyptians are also in the top ten countries for per capita consumption of wheat (which they eat in the form of macaroni and bread), and their government has for decades operated a vast bread subsidy that will cost the Egyptian government 15bn Egyptian pounds (EGP) this year, over 5 per cent of total government spending. Over the past year, wheat and corn prices in Egypt have almost doubled, and rice rose almost 70 per cent in the first four months of 2008 alone. In August, the government declared annual inflation to be running at 23 per cent (a conservative estimate), blaming the rising cost of food and fuel.

Then, this year [2008], the food prices and bakery queues finally broadened the disaffection to the masses — something Egyptian political activists have long dreamed of. Late in March, workers at the country’s largest cotton mill in the run-down city of Mahalla asked for baladi bread to be handed out in the factory, and planned a strike for 6th April. Simultaneously, middle class students in Cairo seized the opportunity of the bread crisis to exhort — through Facebook, instant messages and text messages — a widening of the Mahalla strike into a national movement to stay at home on 6th April.

The strike was forestalled by detentions, co-opting strike leaders, and state security menacing workers on their way home.

Meanwhile, expensive food is not just disturbing domestic politics. It is making Egyptians rethink their view of the wider world. In particular, the relationship with the US has come under fire. Many still grumble that Egypt sold out when it signed the Camp David accords with Israel in 1978, its consent purchased with military aid and cheap wheat supplies. Some observers — including the Muslim Brotherhood MP who told me, “imported food has been used as a weapon against Egypt — drew explicit links between Egypt’s dependence on US wheat and Mubarak’s pro-US and, by extension, pro-Israeli stance.

The internet can’t put bread on your table, one wants to tell Gonim, when three quarters of Egyptians don’t have the internet. Still, as Steavenson’s article points out, digital technologies had a part to play, perhaps as much a part as any communicative technology has contributed to the revolutions of its day. It’s simply that there are much more prominent factors that one can identify as causes motivating the revolution. As The New Age Online pointed out on January 27, 2011, “Unemployment, low wages and sky-rocketing food prices have all contributed to the rumbling wave of popular discontent, strikes and demonstrations.” On January 31, 2011, Annie Lowrey noted in Slate that “the worldwide food price index is at an all-time high—surpassing its 2008 peak, when skyrocketing costs caused global rioting and pushed as many as 64 million people into poverty. The price of oils, sugar, and cereals have all recently hit new peaks—and those latter prices are especially troubling for Egypt, as the world’s biggest importer of wheat… Egyptians are particularly vulnerable to increases in food prices because they spend an unusually high proportion of their income on food, according to a recent Credit Suisse survey.” And Scientific American noted on February 1, 2011, that “Even with government subsidies and ration cards for bread, the true price of wheat in Egypt is nearly 30 percent higher today than it was a year ago — thanks to global prices for that staple cereal that have increased nearly 80 percent in the same span… Back in 2008, skyrocketing wheat prices prompted bread riots in Egypt—and the government reacted with an expanded subsidy program that has kept food prices relatively stable. But Egypt remains dependent on imported wheat for 60 percent of its supply of that grain.” So: some apparent consensus. Perhaps more than Facebook, economic problems with the supply and distribution of food seem to have been a contributing factor to the Egyptian revolution. Fair enough.

If I’m curious about how economic factors contributed to the Egyptian revolution, then, the next reasonable step would seem to be to identify where those economic factors come from. In the past, I’ve briefly mentioned my appreciation for Timothy Mitchell’s 1995 essay “The Object of Development: America’s Egypt” (in Crush, Jonathan, ed., Power of Development) and I’d like to return to it at length here, though I won’t have time tonight. A small excerpt will offer a taste: according to Mitchell, “it is not true that the population [of Egypt] has been growing faster than the country’s ability to feed itself. If this is the case, then why has the country had to import ever increasing amounts of food? The answer is to be found by looking at the kinds of food being eaten, and at who gets to eat it” (128). Look at it he does, and finds that “[i]ncreasing wealth, together with increasing numbers of resident foreigners and tourists, led to an enormous increase in the demand for meat and other animal products, which ‘are chiefly consumed by tourists and other non-Egyptians, plus middle- and upper-class urban residents’ (USDA 1976:23)” (129). Interestingly, this takes us all the way back to Vali Nasr’s assertion about economic class difference — although not as users of social media, but as the consumers whose increasing wealth affected their eating habits and thereby Egypt’s economy.

This seems far-fetched, perhaps. I’ll have more to say about it soon. Until then, I think Tom Slee’s caution about Facebook might equally well apply to the organization that facilitated this change in Egypt’s economy: “Facebook is part owned by Goldman Sachs and has an estimated market value twice as big as Monsanto. It is mainstream. It is commercial. It is not on anyone’s side but its own.”

Egypt and Afghanistan, Part 1