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Walk like an Egyptian: Porfirio to Mubarak

30 January 2011

Why is America so afraid?

Because we are seeing a giant leap in Arab power, in which the people of the largest Arab nation demand that they be allowed to fulfill their potential. This change portends a huge shift in the balance of power in the region. For the U.S. has played only a negative role in the Egyptian advance, supplying the teargas, and it seems inevitable that Egypt will cease to be a client state to the U.S. And thereby threaten the order of the last 30 years.

(Philip Weiss,

In 1910, when Porfirio Díaz’ thirty-year regime cratered rapidly, the conventional wisdom  from the U.S. progressives was a demand for “democracy” had boiled over, the pot having been stirred by “web communications” (the web in those days being the Mexican National Railroad) which had been used effectively by intellectuals like Francisco I. Madero and the Flores Magon brothers to incite the masses to action.  Conservatives fretted that the uprising was being controlled behind the scenes by sinister forces, anarchists (and the Flores Magon brothers were anarchists) or worse.  In Washington, the conversation revolved around discussions of how the United States should respond, and how to manage the process to best suit U.S. business and other needs.

Conventional wisdom had been that the octogenarian Porfirio Díaz would at some point leave office, and while many Mexico-watchers (and just plain interested people) talked of a coming democratization, under younger, more dynamic versions of the old regime, there was also a sense that one of the well-known lesser figures (most not much younger than the seemingly indestructible Don Porfirio) or a military officer would emerge without undue fuss.

A very few media figures (meaning the written word in 1910) — notably John Kenneth Turner* — might have noted the growing unrest in Mexico prior to 1910, but even he (like most reporters and investigators) received most of his information either from the elites, or from intellectuals.

Turner’s book, Barbarous Mexico, by the way — although published in English, in the United States, was largely credited with creating the spark that set off the Revolution.   And, while there was initially the kind of revolution (or, at least, “regime change”) the conventionally wise expected (the more or less democratic Madero, replaced by the military strong-man Victoriano Huerta), the end results were nothing foreseen by anyone.  Villa and Zapata were known, if at all, as “bandits”.  No one had heard of Venustiano Carranza and Alvaro Obregón — if known at all — might have merited mention in agricultural magazines.

Certainly, in 1910, no one, not even the perceptive Turner, could imagine that “regime change” in a client state would destroy the concept of unfettered access to natural resources, and a free hand in economic intervention in a neighboring country, or that a populist uprising might mean a century of work in maintaining economic and social control over a neighbor, let alone trying to control events in places far from Mexico, like Ireland in 1916, or Russia in 1917, which took at least some cues from events in a country not much known, or much respected, in 1910.

Although I’ve spent the last several years living in a provincial Mexican community, and immersed in Mexican history,  I’m not cut off from the rest of the world, and certainly not from U.S. “conventional wisdom”.

John Kenneth Turner’s book,  Madero’s La sucesión presidencial en 1910 and copies of the Flores Magon brothers’ Regeneracíon carried by railroaders are said to have sparked the 1910 uprisings.  We are assured now that “Wikileaks” and Twitter sparked the uprisings in Tunisia which spread to Egypt (and perhaps will spread throughout the region), and will lead to “regime change” with relatively familiar faces replacing aging leaders who have stayed too long… and, absent a “radical” and sinister element behind the scenes (The Muslim Brotherhood is a favorite here), which U.S. conservatives insist be controlled, the order of things will not change all that much.

At worse, or at best, there will be a democracy, of a sort we (the United States) will be able to deal with… or will there?

Richard Engel (MSNBC News) is one of the few U.S. reporters  fluent in Arabic.  Something of a rarity among U.S. newscasters, he worked as a freelancer and lived in a lower-class Cairo neighborhood for several years and … as in this broadcast (from the Rachel Maddow Show, 28 January 2011) … has talked not only to the generals and presidents and intellectuals who seek to define an event, but to those who actually make the event.

Engel’s comments on changes in Egypt since the mid-1990s bring me back to Mexico.  Engel speaks of people then having “a sense of solidarity, of community” and the “honor of poverty”.  What he senses is a frustration with the growing gap between rich and poor… the sense that “the government has not done very much” to counter the loss of small factories and local industries to foreign-dominated concerns… and the changes in the world economy that have impacted the ordinary Egyptian’s life for the worse.  And driven him into the streets to demand… if not democracy in the sense of multi-party elections for a bicameral legislature in a government of three co-equal branches… than for a change he (and we) cannot yet fathom.

Mexicans have prided themselves on their “sense of solidarity, of community” and poverty has been a badge of honor for many.  Since the mid- 1990s, the country’s small factories and local industries have been disappearing before the onslaught of foreign controlled enterprises.  The changes in the world economy have impacted the ordinary Mexicans’ life… but whether for the worse I don’t know.  Many do believe that.

Mexico and Egypt, when I think about it, are more alike than we realize.  Yeah, of course, we’re both famous for our pyramids, and in both nations, we define ourselves and draw our national myths from a sensibility of long and ancient cultural traditions.

Egypt’s population (about 85 million) is a bit smaller than Mexico’s (115 million), but with capital cities about the same population (18 million, with a quarter of the entire population in the greater metropolitan area), considered the most “advanced” nations in their respective regions (North Africa, Latin America), butting up against a very different, and much wealthier neighbor (Israel, the United States) with which we have a wary, sometimes envious, relationship.

The Egyptians are much poorer than the Mexicans, and — as Philip Weiss noted in his Salon article — Egypt has been the recipient of U.S. foreign aid (actually, aid to U.S. companies, which in turn provide goods and services to Egypt), overwhelming channeled to the military sector, seen by many a sop to the present regime for “good behavior” in complying with U.S. goals in the region, and a rationale for ignoring the regime’s abuses of its own citizens.  Egypt is an unapologetic police state, and dissent can be fatal.

Mexico is also receiving (indirectly, by way of U.S. -based purchases) “foreign aid”, although not nearly in the stratospheric amounts spent by the United States government for Egypt.  With a much freer press than in Egypt, Mexicans openly complain that the funds are a sop for the present administration, meant to reward it’s “good behavior” in following U.S. prescriptions for controlling the narcotics export market.  The narcotics “threat” perceived more and more, not as a threat in itself, but as the rationale for a growing police presence and an excuse for a heavy-handed response to dissenters… or a reason to discourage dissenters (who have been jailed, or “disappeared”, on suspicion of being tied to the narcotics dealers).

Mexicans are not — one trusts — as desperate as the Egyptians, or at least not in the numbers seen in Cairo.  But, what will happen if the Mexicans decide it is time for a giant leap in Mexican  power, in which the people of the largest Spanish-speaking nation demand that they be allowed to fulfill their potential?

* Incidentally, Turner’s “Wikipedia” entry is only in the Spanish edition.  An English translation is sorely needed.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. don quixote permalink
    30 January 2011 10:57 pm

    Rich, you can always be counted on for your insight and understanding of the “bigger picture”. This historical popular uprising in Egypt may be the spark that ignites a world wide revolt against the old order and the failed economics of the 20th century. As shitty as things are for most working people in Mexico, and the popularity of the internet as electronic Tom Paine (or Hermano’s Magon), I wonder how long it will be before Mexico follows Egypt’s example and throws off the heavy yoke of it’s masters.
    Maybe just in time for the 2012 quinto sol evolution? Hey how prophetic!

  2. DAB permalink
    31 January 2011 9:51 pm

    Rich, thank you for a very interesting article. It’s funny, but before I found a link to this on Humanitarian News, I was reflecting on the similarities between these two nations, both of which I love dearly. Your reflections and thoughtfulness are deeply appreciated.

  3. El Chismoso permalink
    31 January 2011 11:59 pm

    “Why is America so afraid? Because we are seeing a giant leap in Arab power, in which the people of the largest Arab nation demand that they be allowed to fulfill their potential. ”

    Oh Damn, now the world knows that the U.S. is afraid of a change in Egypt. I have enjoyed the benefits of the U.S. explotation of the people of Egypt and Mexico for such a long time. How will I enjoy myself now?

    I hope world order is not upset by those damn egyptians.

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