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Tunisia protests serve warning to autocratic Middle Eastern regimes

Tunisia protests that began over high unemployment last month have quickly spread, raising a red flag about the dangers of maintaining stability by suppressing dissent.

By Correspondent / January 12, 2011

Protesters clash with riot police in Cite Ettadhamen near the Tunisian capital Tunis on Jan. 12. Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fired his interior minister on Wednesday after a deadly wave of violent unrest, the biggest in decades, reached the capital for the first time.

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Cairo

A rare wave of protests sweeping through Tunisia has revealed a population not only concerned about high unemployment, but deeply angry with its repressive and corrupt regime. The unrest serves as a startling red flag for governments across the region that have long dismissed warnings that maintaining stability through suppression may one day backfire.

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The protests, which started in Tunisia’s interior last month and rapidly spread, reached the capital of Tunis on Wednesday. Demonstrators wielding rocks clashed with security forces, who used tear gas against them, according to media reports. The government says 23 protesters have died so far, while rights groups say the number is more than twice that.

In a sign of how shaken the government is, Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fired his interior minister Wednesday, just days after a speech in which he called the protesters terrorists and offered few concessions.

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The Tunisia protests, combined with the eruption of riots in neighboring Algeria last week and recent unrest in Jordan, are worrying signs for Cairo. Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country, also has a bulging youth population that has a far harder time landing jobs than other segments of society, and a tightly managed political system that has left little room for dissent.

While the protests are unlikely to bring down any governments in the near future, they portend trouble ahead if leaders who have ruled with a strong fist for decades try to keep a tighter lid on discontent instead of creating a vent for anger.

“Tunisia is a warning for the Egyptian regime,” says Diaa Rashwan, an analyst at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “It's a warning, and any rational regime would take action to address it. But I don't think Egypt has any strategy for addressing it.”

How Tunisian riots started

The unrest in Tunisia and Algeria was triggered by unemployment and rising food prices, respectively, but the roots of the unrest go further than economic factors.

Protests in Tunisia erupted last month when Mohamed Bouazizi, a young unemployed university graduate from Sidi Bouzid, doused himself in gasoline and lit himself on fire in front of a local government building. Unable to find work in the formal sector, he had taken to selling fruits and vegetables informally but then police confiscated his merchandise and reportedly slapped him in public. His self-immolation was apparently an act of final despair. He died Jan. 4.

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