The Egyptian government, which American taxpayers back with about $1.3 billion a year in military aid, more than any country except Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel, has banned public demonstrations and blocked Twitter in response to public unrest.
FutureOfCapitalism spoke with the director of Cyberdissidents.org, David Keyes, to try to get a handle on the situation.
What to make of Twitter being blocked? Mr. Keyes says it's unusual. "Egypt is known for not blocking many Web sites," preferring instead to block dissidents themselves by arresting them. He mentions other sites that have been blocked in addition to Twitter: bambuser.com, a video streaming website; AlBadil.net, a newspaper that has dedicated a full spread to the protests; and Dostor.org, an opposition website headed by Ibrahim Issa.
Is it true, as some claim, that the Muslim Brotherhood is behind the protests, and that a replacement of Hosni Murbarak's regime would likely be a radical Islamist government that would break the peace treaty with Israel and be even less free that Mubarak's?
Mr. Keyes says he spoke last night with Kareem Amer, an Egyptian blogger recently released after four years in prison for criticizing Mubarak on his blog and for "insulting Islam." Mr. Amer reported, "these are regular people," with the Egyptian Christians known as Copts among the protesters and little visible Islamist presence. Mr. Keyes echoed Mr. Amer in suggesting that the current Egyptian government regime is playing up the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood as a way of gathering support from the West.
What should President Obama do?
Mr. Keyes suggests, for starters, that he "tell Secretary of State Clinton to stop talking about how stable the Egyptian regime is," as Mrs. Clinton did yesterday.
All of this is a bit far afield from our usual concerns here at FutureOfCapitalism, except in the broad sense of advancing freedom and limiting arbitrary government power. But then Mr. Keyes touches on two points that are often addressed here. The first is that, as Mr. Keyes put it, "all of the experts were wrong about Tunisia." As a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Steven Cook, put it, "I recently took part in a small meeting of regional experts in which we were looking at regional political, social, and economic trends. ...I was struck at the way some of my colleagues dismiss the potential for instability and political change in the Middle East." Knowledge is dispersed, not concentrated in the hands of government or academic or think-tank-credentialed "experts."
The second point has to do with the living conditions that sparked some of the Egyptian protests. Mr. Keyes mentioned "bread prices," and I wondered whether the Egyptian government sets prices for bread. Sure enough, this account from November has the details:
In state-owned Al-Akhbar as well as Al-Ahram, bread prices top the front page of both papers.
"No increase in the price of subsidized bread," Al-Akhbar writes. The paper adds, from the mouth of Egypt's premiere, Ahmed Nazif, that the state will absorb any increase in international prices of wheat. Nazif also pledged that the government will take steps to guarantee the sufficiency of food supplies during the Muslim month of Ramadan.
Al-Ahram's headline reads: "No Change in subsidized bread prices under any conditions." It adds that the government has reached an agreement to buy 240,000 tons of wheat from France. Egypt produces six million tons of wheat per year, compared to a yearly consumption rate of 12 million. The crisis began one week ago when Russia, Egypt's main wheat supplier, suddenly announced a ban on exporting wheat.
In its top story Al-Shorouq, independent daily, declares that the US is ready to cover Egypt's demand for wheat. The paper says the US government is ready to cover the shortage of wheat in the Egyptian market in its entirely, according to a statement by Margret Scobey, US Ambassador to Egypt, who confirmed that the US has a sufficient supply of wheat ready to be exported.
When you have the state-owned newspaper reporting on state-set bread prices and the Egyptian government and the American ambassador, rather than some bread company or commodities dealer, personally managing the bread supply chain, is it any wonder that there are crowds gathering in the streets demanding more freedom?