On January 17, exactly a month after Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation ignited the Tunisian revolution, and just three days after Tunisia's president fled the country, Abdu Abdel-Moneim Hamadah sat in front of Egypt's Parliament building and lit himself on fire. The government had cut off the supply of cheap, subsidized bread on which Hamadah depended for his little sandwich shop in Ismailia. Like Bouazizi, Hamadah's initial protests over the loss of his livelihood were met with abuse and humiliation. But when Hamadah lit the match, Egyptian police were ready with fire extinguishers, and rushed to put out the flames on his body. Such were the absurd calculations of a regime bent on denying any symbol of protest: we will let you starve, but we won't let you burn.
The demonstrations that followed a week later turned this logic on its head. Indeed, Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation initiated the most important political events in the Middle East in living memory, culminating in the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The significance of Bouazizi's singular act trumps all the energy spent on the Gulf wars, the intifadas and Lebanon's civil chaos. It has led to the first transformative political phenomenon in the Arab world that neither the West nor the Islamists (in their various formations) anticipated or promoted. Dazed stupor and stumbling have characterized the reactions from the U.S., Europe, Israel and Saudi Arabia. This was echoed in the Islamists' hesitation in Tunisia and Egypt, where they sat on their hands before awkwardly casting their lot with the people. This is the first time Arab political events have moved faster than both the Western-backed autocrats and the "fundamentalist" opposition. This shows that both sides deeply misread the Arab street.
Since 9/11, the West and its Islamist opponents (Iran and its clients; Sunni extremists) have imagined they are fighting over whose recipe of military (and financial) intervention will bring the missing freedom to the Arab world. In a bout of post-Cold War amnesia, the powers that be forgot that social and economic hopelessness can light the powder keg of suppressed societies as much as - if not more than - religion. American support for authoritarians from Tunis to Cairo, and our opposition to Hamas in Palestine and Hizbullah in Lebanon, revolved solely around the issue of Islamist terrorism. Through this myopic prism, politicians and pundits only viewed the gross economic inequality in Arab states as an opportunity that Islamists would exploit. Instead of paying any more than lip service to civil society activists, we put money in the pockets of the dictators who arrested and imprisoned them. This investment was supposed to insure stability and stave off religious extremism. But one man's act of despair has lead to the toppling of two governments, without terrorism or foreign intervention. We must realize that our ideas about Arab regimes, both those we support and those we fear, have ignored the most dramatic revolutionary force in Arab society: the people.
In the flood of belated analysis, plenty of economic data has (re-)appeared, detailing the obvious. The economies of America's "stable" Arab allies were breaking at the seams from the intertwined burdens of preposterous income disparity and calcified economic stagnation. One governance watchdog group estimates that Tunisia was losing an average of $1 billion annually "due to corruption, bribery, kickbacks, trade mispricing and criminal activity." Almost half of Egypt's workforce labors for businesses with no legal status or protections, and outside the framework of trade unions. Similarly, about half the country's population lives at or below the poverty line, making no more than $2 a day. Bread prices have increased every month since August, setting new records in December and January.
Substantial foreign investment in the political and business elites of these nations did not reflect the desperate economic conditions on the ground. In Tunisia, the ruling family controlled crucial stakes in everything from the central bank to showrooms of imported luxury cars. Those close to the Mubarak regime benefited almost exclusively from the impressive growth rates - about 5% annually - that Egypt experienced every year since 2004. During this same period, Egypt's government accelerated the obliteration of the scant social safety nets that remained from the Nasser era.
But it would be redundant to overemphasize these statistics, as if they were a secret government cable only now declassified. Most diplomats and journalists working around the Middle East were aware of the absurd economic conditions on the ground beneath our "unshakeable" allies. The problem was one of emphasis, not ignorance. As with our invasion of Iraq, America's infatuation with its own agenda led our government (and a media that seldom strays from the consensus of policymakers) to ignore glaring realities that affect the lives of the very Arabs over whose hearts and minds we fight. The threat of Islamist-inspired terrorism narrowed America's approach to every other facet of life in the Middle East. Under George W. Bush, the U.S. overlooked the clear likelihood that sectarian division in Iraq, among other basic facts that were far easier to discover than weapons of mass destruction, would lead to hundreds of thousands of Arab deaths and refugees. President Obama tried to reverse course by drawing down troops in Iraq and promoting amicable relations with our old allies. And American citizens lost interest, their indifference reflected by Obama's brief reference to Tunisia over an hour into his State of the Union -- Egypt was not mentioned. It is perhaps fitting that this omission occurred on January 25, the first day of the Egyptian demonstrations. The lead-up to American evasion in 2011 echoes the invasion of 2003: we demonstrated a criminal lack of interest in the living conditions of the Arab men and women brutalized by our allies and our weapons.
In a foreign policy defined entirely by the fear of political Islam, we imagined our only choices were to pay for an endless war or fund local strongmen who were willing to sacrifice the welfare of their own people. Our rivals, like the Iranian regime, have made a similar calculation whose failure is equally evident in places like Lebanon. In recent weeks, I imagine most Arabs would have rather been dancing with their brothers and sisters in Tahrir Square than waiting on edge for the next civil war in Beirut.
Unlike all the Arab regime changes dreamed up in the West, neither foreign sponsors nor local extremists motivated the men and women, initially Mohamed Bouazizi's family and neighbors, who took to the streets. There was only each individual's choice to risk everything in order to unite against a shared, lifelong experience of injustice. This is what we failed to imagine. And it is exactly what we should have expected.