Holding Our Breath

In the United States, the decision of Hosni Mubarak to yield power to a supreme military tribunal should be a cause for circumspection, not celebration.

Much as we understand and appreciate the desire of the Egyptian people to throw off the reins of an authoritarian regime, there is no assurance at present that whatever government will eventually follow Mubarak will be a real improvement in terms of permitting democracy and recognizing human rights.  From this point forward, prudence would seem to suggest that the United States should refrain from public statements about developments in Egypt in favor of careful diplomacy that works behind the scenes to ensure an inclusive, democratic Egyptian government that respects and honors Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.

We also should recognize that the fall of Mubarak no doubt will leave every government in the Middle East — from Israel, to Jordan, to Saudi Arabia — feeling a bit shaken and concerned about the possibility of additional popular uprisings.  Sweeping pronouncements from the United States about what should be done may not be welcome.  We should hold our breath, keep our own counsel, and see what happens next.

A Region In Turmoil, And A Foreign Policy In The Balance

A dictatorial government has been overthrown in Tunisia.  Protests continue to rage in Egypt, causing long-time leader Hosni Mubarak to reshape his government and to declare that he will not seek “re-election.”  Whether he can remain in power until September, as he plans, is anyone’s guess.  Significant protests also have occurred in Jordan and Yemen. 

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in remarks reported by the BBC, has said that the entire Mideast region is in the grip of powerful forces and that the status quo is not sustainable.  The inevitable question is whether other countries in the region — such as Lebanon, Syria, Libya, and even Saudi Arabia — also will be the site of mass protests and regime change.

Revolutions — even revolutions that, like the protests in Egypt, seem to be motivated by desire for freedom and democracy — can be unpredictable in their results.  Were the bloody Jacobin governments and eventually the reign of Napoleon really preferable to the corrupt French monarchy?  History teaches that there can be no assurance that, long-term, the governments that may replace the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes will be preferable to those that went before.

These circumstances present foreign policy challenges that are far more difficult than any yet confronted by President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton.  They will be asked to make quick decisions in the face of fast-moving events, decisions that may have profound consequences.  All Americans, whether Republican, Democrat, or independent, should hope that their decisions help to produce a Middle East that is more stable and more democratic, rather than the opposite — because the opposite could be catastrophic.

 

Food, Famine, And Fear Of Revolution

Worldwide food prices are up sharply in the last year.  The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization food price index, which measures the wholesale price of a basket of basic food, has increased seven months in a row.  Food prices are now at record highs, according to the index.

The price increases are largely supply-driven and are expected to be long-lasting, according to the experts.  Weather conditions, such as droughts, floods, and cyclones, have interfered with normally farming and harvest patterns and have kept food from the marketplace.  Other factors affecting supply include the increasing efforts to use food as fuel — the heavily subsidized corn ethanol industry in the United States is a good example — and the spread of cities into areas that used to be agricultural producers.  And as we all know from the law of supply and demand, when available supply does not meet demand, prices will increase.  That is precisely what has happened.

If history teaches us anything, it is that food and famine often effect revolutionary change.  The French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and countless other incidents of regime overthrow have been motivated by the actions of hungry, desperate people.  The recent unrest in Tunisia, Egypt, and other parts of the Middle East also is being attributed, at least in part, to food prices and hunger.  Leaders of regimes in those volatile, hungry parts of the world must be wondering whether they soon will be going the way of Nicholas and Alexandra and Marie Antoinette.

 

Are You Kidding Me ?

One of the interesting things about the uprising in Egypt is the idea that a government can actually cutoff it’s citizens access to the internet. In the past there have been reports in the news of Google’s ongoing battle with China who wants to limit it’s citizens access to the internet, but to totally turn off the Internet, that seems almost hard to believe.

I stumbled across this article that I found quite interesting that asked and answered the question, could the same thing happen here in the United States and could the president actually shut off the internet ? Based on the article the answer right now is no, but there is a bill pending in the Senate called “Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset”.

The intent of the bill is to give the president the ability to flip a switch which would slow or stall our Internet Service Providers operations in case there is a cyber-emergency. As the article points out free speech advocates have some concerns. I’m not sure that we really want to have one person to have that much power do we – I mean what happens if access to the switch gets into the wrong hands ?

Wouldn’t it be fascinating to see Jefferson, Franklin, Adams and the other founding fathers debating the issue ?

Walking a Fine Line

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Seeing what’s happening throughout the Muslim world recently and currently in Egypt I am reminded of the words by Imam Rauf (the man behind the community center near ground zero) in his book, What’s Right with America, What’s Right with Islam that I read earlier this year.

Imam Rauf pointed to key historical events that have caused the rise of Islamic Religious Fundamentalism, one of which was the fact that Muslims have a widely held perception that the United States has more often then not has supported undemocratic regimes in Muslim countries.

This I suspect is another one of those key historical events and we need to get it right this time. As Bob said in his blog “Find the Cost of (Egyptian) Freedom” the President is walking a fine line and you can listen to the president’s comments below.

The President numerous times spoke about the Egyptian people, their rights and the need for reforms both in the government and economically. Even Charles Krauthammer from Fox News an avid critic of the president said his comments were “perfectly fine”. I think we are doing the right thing as opposed to wholeheartedly supporting current President Mubarak as we have done in the past.

This protest is basically driven my young Arabians so let’s hope that this is in fact a moment of promise as the president said and that Egyptian people will in fact realize their dreams for a better life.

 

Find The Cost of (Egyptian) Freedom

Egypt is now experiencing its fifth day of violent street protests.  The army has been called out, social media communications and internet access have been disrupted, and most recently President Hosni Mubarak has sacked his government and will be appointing a new one.

Egypt’s economy is mired in high unemployment with low wages, and the masses have followed the lead of Tunisia and taken to the streets against an unpopular leader.  Mubarak, who has been President for 30 years and apparently has become increasingly tyrannical over that period, is trying to avoid being deposed.  In these all-too-familiar scenarios, the crucial issue for the regime usually is whether the army can beat back the masses so that calm can be restored, or whether the army decides to side with the public, leaving the strongman President For Life unprotected, unsupported, and faced with a choice between arrest and trial or fleeing into exile.  That decision point seems to be drawing near in Egypt.

In Washington, D.C. and Tel Aviv, the wheels no doubt are turning.  Under Mubarak, Egypt has been a moderating force that gave Israel one set of stable borders.  Egypt was rewarded for that.  It has long been one of the largest recipients of American aid.  In 2010, Egypt received $1.5 billion in economic and military aid, second only to Israel.

I am sure that the realpolitick types in American government would prefer Mubarak to the unknown that might occur if he were deposed.  It is possible, of course, that elections could produce a fundamentalist Islamic regime that is hostile to Israel and the Mideast peace process.  Yet too much American support for Mubarak could quash American influence with a successor government if he ultimately is deposed.  Iran may be a model here.  America’s steadfast support for the Shah of Iran until the bitter end left America with no real influence when the Ayatollah Khomeini took over, and American and Iran have been estranged ever since — to the detriment of geopolitics in the Middle East.

Of course, geopolitical considerations and American foreign policy considerations don’t mean much to those Egyptians who are in the streets, protesting in hopes of achieving democratic changes and a better life.  Why shouldn’t they have a real say in how they are governed?

 

As Timeless As Wine (Or Human Behavior)

Archaeologists have uncovered the world’s oldest known wine press in southern Armenia.  The wine press was found in a cave and is being dated to 4,000 B.C. — 6,000 years ago.  In short, the wine press is so old that it predates even the rise of the ancient Egyptian civilization.

The archaeologists believe that the wine press produced a dry red vintage using some kind of foot-stomping method.  They also speculate that the wine was a special vintage used in a burial ritual by a complex ancient society.

I think the key facts in the article suggest a different back story.  Those key facts are (1) a cave, (2) wine, and (3) the world’s oldest discarded leather shoe, which also was found in the same cave.  Do those facts sound to you like the ingredients of a burial ritual?  Or, do those signs point to a secret drinking place where the lazy ne’er-do-wells of the tribe could escape to kick off their shoes, stomp a few grapes, guzzle homemade hooch, and enjoy some drunken hilarity with their buddies away from the tribal chief, the high priest, and angry spouses?  To confirm this theory, the archaeologists need only start looking for dice, chicken bones, and signs of ancient graffiti in the vicinity.

The wine press may be 6,000 years old, but human beings really haven’t changed that much over the millennia.

The Humble Comb

Today, after I woke up and got out of bed, and as I dragged my comb across my head, I thought briefly of the humble comb.

An early Egyptian comb

The earliest tools made by human ancestors go back hundreds of thousands of years.  Not surprisingly, they seem to be things likes axe heads, knives, and other implements that help with hunting, killing, and skinning animals; you would expect the struggling early humans to focus on getting food and making it edible.

Combs, however, are distinctly different.  They aren’t essential to survival and seem to be a product of a more advanced civilization, where people were more attentive to their appearance and had the leisure time to do something about it.  Perhaps they gazed into a pool of water, considered their reflection, and thought:  “My hair looks like crap!”  They dragged their fingers through their hair and noticed a slight improvement, and then they realized that just as tools helped with the killing and gutting of prey, so tools could help to make their hair look better.  After some experimentation, the basic design of the comb — with its rows of tines working to tame and untangle unruly hair — was devised.

Ancient combs from Qumran

I don’t think archaeologists know exactly when combs were first invented.  I’ve seen combs from ancient Egypt that were created more than 5000 years ago, and combs apparently spread around the world after the first century B.C. The combs shown on these links look pretty similar to the combs available today.  Substitute antler bone, ivory, or hard wood for plastic, and there’s really not much difference.  The basic design of the comb therefore seems to have pretty much stayed unchanged for 7,000 years.  Is there any other man-made tool or device that has been used, continuously and without material change, for as long as the humble comb?

Say Hello To “Inuk”

An artist's depiction of "Inuk"

A study of 4,000-year-old remains has allowed scientists to sequence the genome of an individual trapped in the permafrost of Greenland.  From the remains and the genome sequencing, scientists have been able to determine that the man — called “Inuk,” which means “human” in the language of Greenland natives — likely was prone to baldness, had “shovel-shaped” front teeth, and had “dry earwax.”  Other than that, he undoubtedly would have been quite the stud at his tribe’s seal-slaughter festival.

What is interesting about this discovery is not that scientists have been able to make such determinations from 4,000-year-old remains, but rather that at the same time “Inuk” was noshing on seal blubber and huddled in a small dark tent, freezing and suffering through the endless winter nights, the Egyptian civilization was flowering thousands of miles away.  At about the same time Inuk met his maker in the Greenland permafrost, Cheops was erecting the Great Pyramid that continues to astonish modern tourists, and his contemporaries were establishing the literature and culture that marked one of the high points of Egyptian civilization.

What made humans develop relatively advanced civilizations in some areas, while in others they continued to live in primitive tribal conditions?  Of such questions is science made.

Eat Like An Egyptian

Scientists have performed x-rays and other scans on Egyptian mummies and have determined that ancient Egyptians experienced clogged arteries and heart disease, just like modern Americans do. The mummies that were examined as part of the study were of upper-class social status, which meant they ate meat and had richer than normal diets that were similar to those of modern Americans.

The results may mean that the modern activities which often are cited as causal factors for heart disease — such as smoking, eating processed foods, and leading sedentary lifestyles — in fact aren’t significant causes of heart disease at all. Instead, the root causes may be genetic.