The video footage of Egyptian anti-government demonstrations included scenes of protesters (almost entirely young men) looting buildings and carrying off pieces of furniture and whatever other items they are able to seize with their bare hands. According to media reports, incidents of looting are increasing across the country, as anti-Mubarak protests continue unabated.
Now, there are even more disturbing reports of armed gangs robbing upscale shops, marauders destroying priceless antiquities in museums and thousands of prisoners escaping jails.
While Egypt is burdened with grinding Third World poverty and deprivation, taking advantage of civil unrest and anarchy by stealing would seem to compromise the legitimate grievances of honest people who are tired of high unemployment and state-sponsored repression.
Of course, this is small-scale larceny compared to the vast wealth that President Mubarak and his cronies have illegally acquired over the past few decades. Mubarak, in fact, is probably the biggest ‘looter’ of all.
Still, it rankles me to see such looting because it reduces an admittedly small portion of demonstrators to the role of petty criminals.
Having never been to Egypt, all I know of the country is what I see on TV or read in newspapers and books. But I get the sneaking suspicions that some of the demonstrators are not necessarily the most deprived members of Egyptian society.
Indeed, the protesters I watch on television almost all appear to be well-fed and well-clothed young men (some of whom even appear to be laughing, smiling and almost “enjoying” the chaotic atmosphere on the streets (the rubber bullets of security officials notwithstanding).
This brings to mind the fact that many (perhaps most) revolutions are engineered by the middle-class, not the poor. One of the brutal facts of life in Third World countries is that nobody really cares about the poor – not the government, not the military, not the judiciary, not the business elites, not the wealthy and not even the middle-class. (As a native of India, I am painfully aware of this).
When the middle-class starts to revolt – that is when change is likely to occur. The French Revolution of the 18th century and the Iranian Revolution of 1979 both enjoyed significant support of those nation’s middle classes.
The major advanced countries of the West have largely avoided the kind of massive civil disturbances we are now witnessing in Egypt partially because they have large, stable (and, in many cases, politically indifferent) middle-classes.
Riots seen in countries like France, England and the U.S. typically involve a very small aggrieved part of the population and they don’t last more than a short period.
Perhaps the last major national civil unrest witnessed in a major Western capitalist country were the May 1968 riots in France which toppled their government – but even that momentous event hardly had a radical long-term impact on the nation.
I am also reminded of a recent event that I witnessed personally – the riots in Los Angeles in April 1992 following the acquittal of four white police officers who were charged with beating a black man, Rodney King, nearly to death. (The infamous videotape of that brutality verified the policemen’s guilt).
Thereafter ensued a massive riot that resulted in dozens of deaths, hundreds of injuries, and untold millions in damages to buildings and infrastructure. Although the protesters had legitimate, long-festering grievances against a brutal and racialist police force, the protests against the acquittal also degenerated into an orgy of looting and stealing. (One can never forget the sight of people carrying off televisions, stereos, vacuum cleaners, etc., from destroyed stores).
Many of those looters likely had no specific view of the Rodney King scandal, they simply took advantage of a short-term civil crisis to steal whatever they could.
My sincere hope is that the Egyptian protesters are able to remove Mubarak from power, install a fair and democratic country, and uplift the millions of their people trapped in poverty.
But they should also repudiate the opportunistic criminals in their midst.