måndag 26 december 2016

The US election and lessons from the Arab spring - what now?

This blog post is unusual in that it's not about my personal academic activities, nor musings that stem from (for examples) from a seminar of from an academic book I have read. It is instead an analysis of current events and it's written against the backdrop of Donal Trump becoming the 45th US president less than four weeks from now

Before I started this blog, I had another non-academic (but in fact much more analytical) blog where I wrote about (peak) oil, energy, geopolitics, sustainability, economy etc. This blog post is in fact much more in line with the kind of blog post I wrote on my previous blog and I also use blog posts from that blog as the starting point of this analysis.


When the Arab Spring started in Tunisia in December 2010, I naturally took an interest. The "unrest" later spread to Egypt where protests began at the end of January 2011 and where Hosni Mubarak was quickly forced away from power after having rules Egypt for 30 years. After some intermittent chaos, the islamist (Muslim Brotherhood leader) Mohamed Morsi won the ensuing election and became president in June 2012 only to a year later be deposed of by General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. See Wikipedia for more information about the Egyptian revolution of 2011.

In my own attempt to understand what was happening, I read up and wrote a series with five (Swedish-language) blog posts about Egypt's challenges already back in February and March of 2011:
- 1. Egypt and the abyss - not the best of these text
- 2. Egypt and the meat - ok text
- 3. Egypt and the bread - this is a good text
- 4. Energy and food (and Egypt) - this is my favorite!
- 5. Egypt and the military - this is my favorite too - I even hinted (in March 2012) that Egypt's shift to democracy might not be very long-lived in the face of the Egyptian military's might!

The basic point that I explored in these blog posts was that the problems Egypt was facing were of such a magnitude that a change of the system of governance (from military dictatorship to theocracy or democracy or any other system of governance) might make a difference, but that the basic problems would be hard or even impossible to solve (to everyone's satisfaction) even should the massively popular lovechild of Buddha, Einstein, Gandhi and Florence Nightingale take a shot running Egypt. Some of the challenges Egypt was (and is) facing were:

- Egypt was the most populous Arab country with more than 80 million inhabitants (up from 20 million in 1950) and the population increases by 1.5 to 2 million inhabitants every year. The population is in fact currently estimated to be 92 million and half the population is 24 years or younger!
- While Egyptian oil production is shrinking, oil exports (and incomes) have been eradicated. According to the US Energy Information Agency's information about the state of energy in Egypt, oil production has shrunk by more than 20% in the last 20 years while oil consumption has increased by 3% per year during the last decade and "Egypt's oil consumption [now] outpaces its oil production".
- Part of the Egyptian state budget has been used to subsidize food and fuel and these subsidies "eat up a big chunk of the budget". According to the "Executive Director of the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies in Cairo, government subsidies made up about one-third of the government’s budget in 2014 and 75% of that amount is set aside for energy sector subsidies". People get pissed off when they can't fill their car any longer (despite only paying between 50-60% of the real costs of the gas), and, they get really pissed off when they can't buy bread.
- In 2011, around 20% of the Egyptian population managed on less than 1 USD per day and another 20% on less than 2 USD per day. The price of wheat and subsidized bread is a matter of life and death to many millions of Egyptians. While I have problems finding recent (2015-2016) figuresit seems that things have gotten worse since with more than 25% of all Egyptians now live in poverty and another 25% live just above the poverty line.
- Back in 2010, Egypt imported 40% of all food and 60% of all wheat. Egypt is the number one importer of wheat in the world - and this in a country that was once the breadbasket of the Mediterranean and of the Roman empire.

None of these big problems will disappear by a change of government or by a change of the system of governance. They are in fact likely to get worse every year no matter who governs the country.


So what the is the connection to the US and to Trump? My hypothesis is that the same kind of reasoning can be applied also to the US. The problems that plague the US are at this point not very likely to go away no matter what president or which political party runs the country. While we stare at the crest of the waves, the real shape and strenght of the wave depends on forces that act far below the surface. While this 2009 video about Obama's feats is hilarious (but do note the implicit critique of the massive financial crisis bailout!), it is unrealistic to expect so much from one individual even if he happens to be the president of the United States of America.

So I don't think Donald Trump (or anyone else) can "make America great again" - but I'm pretty sure that it's relatively easy to make things worse and that he will be great at that (i.e. at making things worse). I think the best Trump can hope for is to "kick the can" in front of him for another four years and hope that someone else draws the short straw and has to handle (or fail to handle) the problems the US will be facing at that time. I'm here thinking of poor Herbert Hoover who had the great misfortune of being the president of the United States of America during the onset of the Great Depression and who was widely blamed for it. A "Hooverville" was a shanty town built by homeless people in the US during the Great Depression and millions lived in them. Not a great way to be remembered. Hoover is also "one of only two Presidents (along with William Howard Taft) and President-elect Donald Trump, who had neither been elected to a national political office or governorship, nor served as military generals"

Just imagine if Trump will be remembered for something equally disgraceful ("Trumpvilles"?) five and ten and twenty years from now? The only thing I worry about in this context is that Trump in some way manages to dodge that bullet by adeptly pointing fingers at and "inventing" scapegoats left and right. As to the problems facing the US, there is not lack of factors to choose from. One of the more frightening pieces I have read is a recent text by British academic and journalist Nafeez Ahmed who, with Trump on his way to the White House, might be on to something when he points out "that the American establishment is now at war with itself" and that "the establishment is fracturing":

"now it’s not just minorities — Muslims, refugees, Mexicans or Black people — who are Otherized. For the first time in American history, mainstream establishment figures and movements are brutally Otherizing each other. ... It is no coincidence that this process of social and political polarisation is accelerating in what has suddenly been recognized as an era of ‘fake news’, or ‘post truth.’ ... We are witnessing, participating in, embodying the breakdown of the information age ... Information is in overproduction, and the more we are saturated with it, with social media and news reports and multimedia stories and soundbites and expert commentary, the less we collectively understand the world around us."

It's a pity his new book, "Failing States, Collapsing Systems: BioPhysical Triggers of Political Violence" is so slim and still so expensive (thanks, Springer!).

A final example of someone focusing on the undercurrents instead of on the crest is the work of historian Allan Lichtman - who has correctly predicted the results of each of the last nine US election (e.g. each election since 1981). He can call the winner months and sometimes years in advance and sometimes even before both candidates have been chosen. He does so by looking at 13 key measures (true/false questions) of which only two have anything whatsoever to with the specific candidates, e.g. if the white house candidate or the challenging candidate is a charismatic, once-in-a-generation candidate or not. I heard a totally amazing podcast (28 minutes) with him and I very much recommend it. Lichtman tunes out during the election year and doesn't even follow any of the issues the media focuses on!

So peeking above the edge of my academic burrow hole, this is what I see and these are my two cents. And let's hope the world hasn't crashed and burned four years from now with Trump at the helm in the meanwhile. But enough with politics - my next blog post will of course once more treat academic matters.

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