My colleagues are departing for North Africa. And I am sitting here left behind in central London wishing I was going with them. History is being made and I want to see it up close.
But what kind of history? Commentators vie with each other for the most appropriate comparison.
– “Is it like 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall?”
– “No, this is the new 1968 and The Prague Spring?”
– “No it isn’t, this is just like 1848 and the spate of European revolutions that swept the continent.”
Always tricky writing history on the hoof without understanding how these events will play out and with time for calm reflection. General conclusions are not just premature but also misleading in understanding how events are unfolding. As Tolstoy almost said: Happy countries are all alike; every unhappy country is unhappy in its own way.
But I will offer one possible common cause.
The rebellions we have seen in Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya are not driven by ideology, religion or organised nationalism. They are driven by a terminal frustration with the incompetence of the regimes that run these countries. Some of us may have a small sense of how that feels: that sense of total impotence in the face of mindless bureaucracy and government ineptitude compounded not just by repressive brutality but also by a general and corrosive haughty indifference.
For years people have accepted this treatment with world weary resignation. But something changed. It certainly changed for Muhammad Al Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit seller harassed by the authorities until he took his own life. And it changed for Cairo’s urban underclass spending 80% of their income on food in a country that in 1960 was self sufficient and now imports close to 80% of its food requirements at a time of enormous volatility in world food prices.
And it is not just the poor. The young professional middle class – the Al Jazeera generation – have had enough: enough of seeing their country run by people too corrupt and inept to manage the economy in a way that provides the kind of opportunities they feel they deserve. Somehow this fusion of economic hardship and thwarted expectations between the poor and the better off has caused a normally elastic tolerance to stiffen and refuse any longer to accept the status quo.
This is only part of the explanation and we still don’t know if it can be sustained and how it will all pan out. But I sense that across these countries there is some collective sense that there is a better way to be governed. Let’s hope so.