A month ago a young man in Tunsia attempted to sell fruit on a streetcorner because he was broke. He was an educated member of the middle class and had been prepared for a life as a professional. He was forced off the street by the police and set himself on fire. He died.
The rest is history, as Tunisians took to the streets, the local dictator left the country, and an interim government was installed. Subsequently, Egyptians took to the streets, then Yeminis and Jordanians, now also Syrians.
The immediate problem started last summer when a devastating drought and heat wave caused the Russian and Ukranian harvests to be so damaged that Russia was forced to dramatically reduce its exports.
The Middle East is the world's largest importer of grains. For example, per capita, Egyptians consume more wheat products such as pasta even than the Italians. Across the region this autumn, food prices have risen between fifty and seventy percent.
This has happened in a region that has been experiencing substantial economic growth and is characterized by a burgeoning middle class. Suddenly, this middle class has found itself without enough to eat, and they are furious, and well capable of expressing their rage against the government.
Every revolution, beginning with the French in the late eighteenth century, has started for the same reason: a developing middle class has been suddenly deprived of food. The French of the 1780s had not known hunger for over a hundred years. In the early 20th Century, the Russian Czar miscalculated the cost and effects on his economy of fighting the Germans. The middle class suffered and revolted, and in the end their revolution was co-opted by extremists and Russia suffered seventy years of oppression and hunger far worse than anything that had happened under the czars. Once again, later in the 20th Century, the expanding middle class in Iran experienced a sudden economic disruption because of rising prices. Their attempt to overthrow the shah resulted not in democratic reforms, but in the establishment of an even more terrible dictatorship.
Right now, the entire Middle East hangs in the balance. Will extremist co-opt what is going to become a series of revolutions? Or will there be, for the first time in history, an expansion of democratic forms of government into the region?
I cannot answer these question, but it is worth asking another: why has the Middle East been burdened with so many dictatorships?
In part, the reason is that the developed world has supported stability in this area, because it is the world's primary energy source. We, the Europeans and the developed parts of Asia have actively financed dictatorships in the region ever since the old European empires collapsed. Thus, we were able to obtain oil without interruption and without much danger. In return, the oil producing countries have actually made very few significant demands. The oil has flowed freely for half a century, and the world has built a vast infrastructure on this basis.
However, the Middle Eastern dictatorships have functioned in a fundamentally different manner from, say, the Chinese dictatorship. From the beginning, the Chinese government has had employment as a primary objective. By contrast, the Middle Eastern dictatorships have been much more like the aristocratic oligarchies that were overthrown in France, Russia and Iran. Their primary economic objective has been the accumulation of wealth for themselves, without regard for the welfare of their people.
Marie Antoinette's infamous reaction to the news that the people were restless because they had not bread was to suggest that they try cake. The Shah reacted in essentially the same way. So have the modern Middle Eastern dictatorships, and they will experience the same fate that befell the French monarchy, and for precisely the same reasons.
During the era of the Shah, the United States made two critical mistakes. The first was imposing the Shah on Iran in the first place. The second was ignoring the abundant signs that his regime was going to fall, causing the Iranian people to reject American influence with contempt. Into the power vacuum that followed came the ayatollas, and they are there to this day, enforcing one of the most oppressive regimes in the modern world.
The United States has not reacted the same way to the Egyptian crisis. As this is being written, the U.S. president has made it clear that our country approves of the aspirations of the protesters in Egypt, and hopes that Hosni Mubarak will soon leave the country. As a result, banners with the president's face on them have blossomed among the protesters.
As Mubarak's regime cannot last, this is vitally important to our relationship with a future Egyptian government. Will it mean the Egypt escapes the fate of Iran? Perhaps, but there is no way to be sure, of course.
As this is being written, a big protest is planned in Yemen, and restlessness is increasing in Syria. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood remains the best organized opposition party, commanding perhaps 20% of the Egyptian vote. But it is primarily a rural movement, and the Egyptian population is largely urban and for the most part more secular than Islamist groups such as the Brotherhood.
The Iranian model is frightening to most people in the Middle East. They don't want to follow the lead of the Russians and the Iranians, and trade one dictatorship for another that is even worse.
This could be a time of positive change in the Middle East, but there remains an unanswered question: if world harvests continue to decline, what are they going to eat?