With Hosni Mubarak still trying desperately to somehow hang on to the last dregs of power, the quote of the week comes from the Egyptian novelist Dr Alaa Al Asany. “The Egyptian people are very close to a camel,” he said in an interview to a foreign journalist. “The camel can really accept a lot of insults. But when the camel gets angry, it is really very serious and it’s almost impossible to get him under control.”
Asany’s book The Yacoubian Building became a rage around the Middle East, the best-selling Arabic novel in 2002 and 2003, because it’s scathing portrayal of the hopelessness of life in modern Egypt resonated with millions.
In a society without any free press, it struck a powerful chord, ultimately being turned into a mega-budget film as well as a very popular TV series.
With the world’s cameras focussed on Cairo’s Tahrir Square it was easy to sometimes forget that the camels are also rising in Jordan, where the King appointed a new Prime Minister and offered assurances to curb corruption; Algeria, where plans were announced to lift a two-decade old emergency; and Yemen and Sudan; which also saw protests.
The jasmine of the Tunisian revolution that ignited all this has been intoxicating.
What do all these countries have in common? Looking beyond the immediate, cast your eye across the Middle East and what stands out is the youth bulge.
The median age in Egypt is 23.9 years, in Jordan 22.8, in Morocco and Algeria 26.2, in Tunisia 29.1, in Syria 22.5 and in Yemen it is as low as 17.8.
These are astonishing statistics. By way of comparison, the median age in most of Europe, for instance, is well over 40, and over 36 in the United States.
All of these countries with rising younger populations in the Middle East also have fairly high unemployment rates hovering around the 10% mark with the exception of Libya where the unemployment rate is 30%.
Combine a burgeoning youth bulge with autocratic regimes, no jobs and little education and what you have is a classical recipe for social unrest: Increasingly younger and aspirational societies with increasingly fewer opportunities for growth, social mobility and self-expression.
These underlying realities are the real drivers of change. FaceBook, Twitter and satellite TV have all been catalysts but these are simply tools.
Just as the invention of the Gutenberg press in 1452 was an epochal moment but did not by itself create revolutionary political change in Europe that had to wait another three-four centuries till social conditions were ripe for the rise of nationalism the potential and the limits of social media too in any society are circumscribed by what else is happening in that society.
They are purveyors of messages, not the message itself.
Are there any lessons here for us? The Indian median age too is low, about 25.9 years, and our unemployment rates are around the 10% mark as well. But we have had the one safety valve that Egyptians did not have: a free press and a vibrant democracy.
Cast your eye at the maps of Asia and Northern Africa and from Morocco to our borders, there are only two stable democracies in between: Turkey and Israel (not counting the blood-infested democracies of Iraq and Afghanistan and the bonsai democracy of Pakistan, which is forever hostage to its Army).
But this is not a good time to secretly gloat about the joys of the world’s largest democracy. As we watch and cheer the breathtaking outpouring of the crowds in Tahrir Square, this is also a good moment to take a searching look ourselves in the mirror at a time when Parliament remains log-jammed, all-pervasive corruption continues to clog almost every institution and there remains a general sense of stasis in governance.
We can speak as much as anyone else in the world, if not more, there are enough institutions that work in India and our Mubaraks regularly meet their Tahrir Squares in the ballot box but the spirit of Tahrir Square is as much about cleansing the system as it is about self-expression. We could certainly do with some of that.