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.
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.
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.
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 – the official unemployment rate in Tunisia is about 13 percent, though it is about twice that for young people – but also government corruption that shuts out all but the highly connected from economic opportunity.
Harsh crackdown in Tunisia
Protests are rare in Tunisia, where President Ben Ali has ruled for 23 years with an iron fist. The US ambassador to Tunisia, in a 2009 cable recently released by WikiLeaks, described Tunisia 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. Nonetheless, protesters posted photos and videos online showing police shooting tear gas and bullets at mobs armed with rocks and sticks. Videos taken by citizen protesters at hospitals show fellow protesters with multiple gunshot wounds.
Showing a blind eye toward public criticism, Mr. Ben Ali in a speech on Monday called the protests “the work of masked gangs that attacked at night government buildings and even civilians inside their homes in a terrorist act that cannot be overlooked.”
He promised to create 300,000 jobs by the end of next year, but offered few details and failed to address the issues people are most angry about.
“People will continue to protest because their message has not yet reached the regime,” says Lahsen Achy, an economist at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon. “The fact that [the protests] lasted is a strong signal that Tunisians are suffering from the impact of these policies and that they have aspirations. They know what they want and are persistent in their demands for change. The type of response the people are expecting should be institutional and political, not just a matter of promising a certain number of jobs.”
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in an interview with Al Arabiya Tuesday that the US is "worried" about the unrest and the reaction of the government, which a 2009 US diplomatic cable revealed by WikiLeaks described as obstinately resistant to criticism. Mrs. Clinton added, "We are not taking sides in it, we just hope there can be a peaceful resolution of it."
Though Tunisia is one of the most repressive regimes in the region, it is a US partner against terrorism and Tunis is home to a regional office for the State Department's democratic reform program, called Middle East Partnership Initiative.
Why Algeria riots broke out
In Algeria, where protests are more common, the riots began Jan. 5, sparked by steep increases in food prices. Five people were killed and more than 1,000 were arrested in the unrest that began in the capital Algiers and spread, before largely dying down by Monday.
Police showed greater restraint than in neighboring Tunisia in dealing with what appeared to be mainly youth from mostly poorer areas. But in Algeria as well, the grievances extend beyond mere food prices. In a state rich with oil and gas revenues, many citizens complain they have been left behind by mismanagement and corruption, and shut out of the political process as well.
Though the situations in Tunisia and Algeria are distinct, they share some factors, like a population frustrated by a lack of political participation. This is also true of Egypt, which along with Tunisia has high unemployment, particularly among youth, and a large, frustrated youth population.
Egypt: 'Tunisian scenario' won't happen here
Egypt’s trade minister on Tuesday insisted that the “Tunisian scenario” could not play out in Egypt, saying conditions are different and that Egypt was committed to maintaining food subsidies to keep prices low.
Dr. Achy of the Carnegie Middle East Center acknowledged that some of the factors increasing pressure on the Tunisian population are not replicated in Egypt: Tunisia’s population has a higher level of education than Egypt’s, particularly among the unemployed, he says, while Tunisia also has much tighter regulation of the informal sector. Tunisia’s population is also more urbanized than Egypt’s, with more people living in mid-sized cities – and thus having higher aspirations for their lives.
Yet Egypt does have a huge youth population: 60 percent of Egyptians are under 30. The official unemployment rate in Egypt is about 9 percent (though the actual rate is likely higher), about 90 percent of whom are younger than 30. Youth are growing restless under the rule of an aging Hosni Mubarak, who has increasingly clamped down on dissent in the past year.
Why Egyptian anger could explode
Though liberalization policies have helped grow the economy, those changes are perceived as helping only the wealthy. Many Egyptians say that whatever the official numbers, they do not feel their lives are improving.
As global food prices and inflation in Egypt rises, the government will need to carefully manage issues like unemployment and food security, says Achy – not to mention political dissatisfaction.
Popular outbursts like Tunisia’s are “always an accumulation of a number of things,” he says. In Egypt, “people are suffering silently for the moment, but at some time you might have an explosion of popular anger.”