Monday 14 February 2011

It tolls for thee

Listening live to President Obama’s press spokesman in the early stages of the Egyptian uprising, you might easily have believed – especially as he kept emphasising it – that the right of Egyptians to access social networking sites was the fundamental human right that the United States wanted to defend in the current crisis.

As our own administration shifted the language about Mubarak’s – from ‘government’ to ‘regime’ – there is was discernable nervousness about articulating precisely want they want the Egyptians to do, and what this whole crisis was about.

They used words like ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’, as if they – the self-appointed representatives of such concepts – are secure in their conviction that no demonstrators are camped in the squares of their own capitals.

This peculiarity goes to the heart of what is happening across the region and on our TV news channels.  And it also implies a challenge for us.  The abuses that lie behind the turmoil in the Middle East are not quite as alien to us as we think.

The uprising is certainly about human rights, but nobody could listen to the occasional explanation by those taking part – from Tunisia to Jordan –without realising that it is just as much about economic rights.

They talk about queuing for bread and about asking for more than subsistence wages.  They talk about the vast wealth of the dynasties in power. 

Of course President Mubarak was right that people have more cars and televisions these days, as if that was somehow a sign of human fulfilment.  But what they also have, right across the region, is ever more flagrant examples of hideous wealth alongside hideous poverty.

We can’t pretend that the uprisings in the Middle East are about a narrow, polite kind of democracy where people vote, freely and secretly every few years, and then go back to their toil.  It is about a broader idea of democracy, where everybody can provide for themselves, have a stake in the nation, and where a few do not have the economic muscle to tyrannise the rest.

That kind of democracy is not the kind where the West has a good track record.  We may not have the kind of obscene extremes of wealth and poverty you might find in Dubai or Cairo.  But we have bankers pushing up the price of homes with their £1 million bonuses.  We have individual hedge fund managers with enough economic muscle to manipulate the entire coffee harvest of the world.

It is, after all, our homegrown traders who are speculating in the price of grain and other staples, and pushing the prices ever higher.

These are intolerable inequalities, and they make a mockery of economic democracy.  Generations that comes after us will be staggered that we were blind to them, just as we are staggered that reasonable people accepted the slave trade.  Every generation has its own hideous abuse, and these are ours.

The uprisings in the Middle East are calling for freedoms that we aspire to as well.  So Barack Obama and David Cameron: never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

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