Winds of change beckon in Egypt

It started in Tunisia and has now spread to Egypt. People are revolting against longstanding leaders who have ruled with iron fists and lived in opulence while the masses suffer with soaring unemployment and a rising cost of living.

Marina Mahathir, The Star

WHOEVER said the Year of the Rabbit would be a gentle one?

In Tunisia, a small act of desperation literally sparked off historic changes.

A young man called Mohamad Bouazizi, educated but only able to earn a living selling fruit and vegetables at an illegal stall, set himself on fire after the authorities confiscated it.

Mohamad symbolised all the young and disenfranchised in Tunisia, frustrated by the huge gap between them and the extremely wealthy elite, and thus sparked large protests.

In less than a month, the much-hated President and his family were out and Tunisia is now in the throes of transition to a new government, the shape of which nobody quite knows yet.

Whatever it becomes, Tunisia’s people revolt had inspired others.

Smaller protests started to spring up in Algeria, Jordan and Yemen.

And then Egypt, with the largest population in the Middle East – 80 million, suddenly caught fire.

We have to realise that people don’t revolt just to be trendy. The Middle East has been ripe for this for a long time.

Long-standing leaders rule them with iron hands, rigging votes as well as disallowing their people of much freedom.

Some use religion as the basis for such repression.

But such leaders can slowly go blind and deaf.

Many of them fail to notice that their population, which comprise the younger generation mostly, are the ones who are facing a desperate unemployment situation.

According to the International Labour Organisation, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has the worst unemployment problem in the world.

In Egypt, 58% of the population is under 25 years old.

In 2003 it had the highest unemployment rate in the world, at 25.6%, and there is an additional 500,000 unemployed each year.

Across the Arab world, the unemployment rate stands at 20%.

This translates to 22 million people, out of which 60% are youth.

Much of this unemployment is attributed to the failure of most Arab countries to link education to the needs of the job market.

As we can see from the events in Egypt right now, nothing could be more dangerous for leaders than to educate young people for jobs that do not exist.

Couple that with a failing economy which depletes people’s already low standards of living and a refusal to address those issues, then you provide kindling dry enough to be set alight with any match.

And it doesn’t even have to be an internal one.

This should be a lesson for leaders everywhere.

More than anything, people’s dignity and self-respect is important.

In this light, a job and the ability to provide for one’s family is part of that personal dignity.

When people are unemployed, it is not because they are lazy and choosy.

It is because there are no jobs or none that matches their educational attainments.

How humiliating it is to be forced, like Mohamad Bouazizi, to take a job selling vegetables in a market when you are an educated person.

But only leaders who are willing to listen to people will understand the need for such dignity.

If at the same time, a leader is seen as not only unwilling to listen but also greedy and corrupt, living in unashamed opulence as Tunisia’s former President and his wife did while his people had so little, then there will come a time when the patience of the people will run out.

Malaysians may shake their heads at the riots in Egypt.

But it has to be understood that the desperation and frustration of Egyptians far exceeds anything we have ever known.

And after brutal repression all these years, to go out on the streets to demand a return of their dignity is an act of courage which we rarely have to show.

Egyptians and their Arab counterparts are not scared of dying to gain freedom.

That is what’s frightening every single leader across the region now.

Especially since even the police and army, crucial to maintaining power, are also rebelling.

I am appalled at the silence on our side at this historic moment, apart from ensuring our students are safe.

Indeed, most world leaders have been caught off-guard and dumbfounded by this.

Some big powers are even trying to hedge their bets, not quite supporting their old friends while trying to encourage the people’s revolt.

After all, they had been supporting undemocratic regimes and now democracy has a chance to bloom without their help at all.

And the countries they have invaded for the sake of “democracy” are not doing that well either.

We should watch closely this historic moment in the MENA and learn the many lessons from there.

And let us never think that such a revolution can’t happen here.

As MENA leaders are finding, never be foolish enough to say never.

Gong Xi Fa Cai!