Saturday, May 17th, 2008
I recorded a commentary for Marketplace on American Public Radio on Bush’s Mideast visit.
Here’s the text:
My family and friends in Egypt tell me they fear an impending explosion.
Egyptians feel squeezed between skyrocketing food prices and stagnant salaries. Young activists there increasingly turn to the Internet to push for reform and to support the poor, often at great risk. Egypt has detained several bloggers and Facebook activists. One blogger was tried and convicted last year.
In Saudi Arabia too, the royal family recently jailed a blogger for more than four months without charge.
Despite their poor democracy records and common distrust of new media, Saudi Arabia and Egypt could not be more different when it comes to the economy.
Saudi Arabia is expected to make $260 billion from its oil export revenues in 2008, six times the annual average throughout the 1990s. Back then, the royal family felt the rumble of discontent from the young and a ripple of opposition from intellectuals.
The fear among democracy activists in the kingdom now is that the flood of cash has softened that sharp elbow of reform.
In Egypt, many activists believe people are simply too exhausted trying to make ends meet to think about reform. The World Food Program estimates household expenditure has doubled since the beginning of the year.
President Hosni Mubarak has ruled Egypt for 26 years. He and his cabinet are seen as increasingly out of touch with Egyptians struggling to feed their families.
But in both flush-with-cash Saudi Arabia and financially anemic Egypt, there is another kind of deficit that activists believe hinders their fight for reform — a democracy deficit in the Bush administration.
President Bush had vowed to end the American tradition of tolerating oppression for the sake of stability. But activitists and many observers believe he ends his term having struck exactly that kind of bargain.