Tunisian protests shake one of the most repressive Arab regimes
Tunisian protests serve as a red flag for other Arab autocracies, such as Egypt, where protesters yesterday called for President Mubarak to get on a plane, too.
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Combined with unrest in neighboring Algeria and Jordan over food and fuel prices, the Tunisian protests serve as a startling red flag for other autocracies across the region, which have long dismissed warnings that maintaining stability through suppression may backfire.
In particular, Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, is home to a bulging youth population that has a far harder time landing jobs than other segments of society. Its tightly managed political system, headed by President Hosni Mubarak for nearly three decades, has left little room for dissent.
“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.”
Sparked in Sidi Bouzid
The Tunisia protests erupted last month when Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed university graduate from Sidi Bouzid, 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. But police confiscated his merchandise and publicly humiliated him.
Mr. Bouazizi’s startling act ignited the passions of thousands of Tunisians, first in Sidi Bouzid. They surged into the streets to protest not only high unemployment rates – youth unemployment is roughly double the official rate of about 13 percent – but also government corruption that shuts out all but the highly connected from economic opportunity.
Protests are rare in Tunisia, which the US ambassador described in a 2009 cable as a “police state, with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems.”
The regime lived up to that description, meeting the protesters with a brutal response, while simultaneously interfering with electronic communication.