It was seven months ago that Mohammed Bouazizi, a vegetable peddler in Tunisia set himself and the Arab world on fire. The 26-year-old staged his suicidal protest on the steps of the local city hall after a municipal inspector took away his unlicensed vegetable cart thus denying him the ability to feed his family of eight.
Most depictions of the Arab revolutions that followed his act have cast them as struggles for freedom and good government. These depictions miss the main cause of these political upheavals. No doubt millions of Arabs are upset about the freedom deficit in Arab lands. But the fact is that economics has played a decisive role in all of them.
In Bouzizi's case, his self-immolation was provoked by economic desperation. And if current trends continue, the revolutionary ferment we have seen so far is only the tip of the iceberg. Moreover, the political whirlwind will not be contained in the Middle East.
Most of the news coming out about Egypt today emanates from Cairo's Tahrir Square. There the protesters continue to demand ousted president Hosni Mubarak's head on a platter alongside the skulls of his sons, business associates, advisors and everyone else who prospered under his rule. While the supposedly liberal democratic protesters' swift descent into bloodlust is no doubt worth noting, the main reason these protesters continue to gain so much international attention is because they are easy to find. A reporter looking for a story's failsafe option is to mosey on over to the square and put a microphone into the crowd.
But while easily accesible, the action at Tahrir Square is not Egypt's most important story. The most important, strategically consequential story is that Egypt is rapidly going broke. By the end of the year, the military dictatorship will likely not only default on Egypt's loans. Field Marshal Tantawi and his deputies will almost certainly be unable to feed the Egyptian people.
Some raw statistics are in order here.
Among Egypt's population of 80 million, some 32 million are illiterate. They engage in subsistence farming that is too inefficient to support them. Egypt needs to import half of its food from abroad.
As David Goldman, (aka Spengler), reported in Asia Times Online, in May the International Monetary Fund warned of the impending economic collapse of non-oil exporting Arab countries saying that, "In the current baseline scenario the external financing needs of the region's oil importers is projected to exceed $160 billion during 2011-13."
Goldman noted, "That's almost three years' worth of Egypt's total annual imports as of 2010."
Caroline B. Glick is the senior Middle East fellow at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C., and the deputy managing editor of The Jerusalem Post, where this article first appeared.
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