On December 17, 2010 a 26 year-old fruit vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest at his treatment by the local authorities in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid.
That act led to massive demonstrations which led to the government of Tunisia being toppled which led to even more massive demonstrations in Egypt which led to President Hosni Mubarak firing his cabinet and may well end up with Mubarak, himself, having to pull up stakes and head for Switzerland or wherever he has stashed his money.
The troubles in Egypt are serious troubles for everyone.
If the demonstrators - or just plain bad guys - disable the Suez Canal it will mean huge problems. Egypt straddles the Suez Canal which connects the Red and Mediterranean Seas. Without the Suez Canal oil tankers (and every other ship) will have to travel an additional 10,000 miles around Africa to get to Europe.
About 50 ships per day travel through the Suez Canal according to
Egypt has a population of 80.5 million. Israel has a population of just over 7 million. The only thing separating Egypt from Israel is an imaginary line in the Sinai/Negev Desert. Different, but still imaginary, lines in the sand separate Israel from Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan to which this civil unrest could easily spread like an outbreak of political Ebola.
Southwest of Egypt is Nigeria. If the riots spread there (and to Angola and Algeria) disruption of oil production would have a massive impact on the U.S. economy. Why? Because we import about 1.5 million barrels of oil per day from those three countries.
And, if the riots spread east to the Gulf States of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait that could disrupt another 1.3 million barrels per day.Together those five countries provide 2.8 million of the 10 million barrels of oil we import every day. Cut oil imports by 28 percent and it will make the $4.00 per gallon price spike of 2008 look like the good old days.
We know from painful experience how fragile civilization is in Iraq and we would prefer not to have to militarily re-litigate that situation.
Countries like Bahrain, Qatar, the U.A.E. and Oman (whose border with Yemen is a blurry line in the desert) might be targets for Iranian agents provocateurs to use the underlying Shi'ite/Sunni unpleasantness to destabilize those governments as well.
It is true that this could spread to Iran which has seen public unrest all on its own in recent years, but regime change in Iran at the cost of instability in every other country in the region might be too high a price to pay.
It is not likely that any new government will be composed of Western-facing officials. Over the weekend protesters in Egypt began chanting against the U.S. and Israel. No surprise to anyone.
The U.S. provides about $1.5 billion per year in direct assistance to Egypt. According to Forbes magazine about $1.3 billion is for "peace and security" meaning you and I are paying for those tanks which rolled out in Cairo Friday afternoon.
The Administration sent Hillary Clinton out to try and make its position clear, but according to the Washington Post's analysis of the Secretary of State's world tour of Sunday shows yesterday:
The Administration has sought to adapt to the rapidly shifting landscape, at times offering contradictory messages.
Vice President Joe Biden last week said he did not believe Mubarak should step down, while Clinton described the Egyptian government as stable. On Sunday, Clinton declined to reiterate either position.
No one can tell where this will all end, but it is already clear that President Obama, who was so eager to re-set America's relationships with the rest of the world is finding out that (a) it is tougher to be President than to run for President and (b) Bush's policies made more sense than Obama thought they did.
It would be better if, when the history of Africa and the Middle East is written 100 years from now, Mohammed Bouazizi is not the functional equivalent of the Archduke Ferdinand.