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.
Nonetheless, protesters managed to post photos and videos online showing police shooting tear gas and bullets at mobs armed with rocks and sticks.
Ben Ali's progression of concessions
After initially dismissing the protesters as “terrorists,” Ben Ali began offering concessions Jan. 10. 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.
“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,” says economist Lahsen Achy at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon. “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 promising a certain number of jobs.
The president then went further on Jan. 12, firing his interior minister.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the US, which counts on Tunisia as an ally against terrorism, was “worried” about the unrest and the response of the government. She added, “We are not taking sides in it, we just hope there can be a peaceful resolution.”
The next day, Ben Ali ordered police to stop shooting except in self-defense. He offered to lift censorship, allow greater political freedom, and keep food prices in check On Jan. 14, Ben Ali dissolved his government, but it was too late. The people had spoken.
Is Egypt next?
The ‘Tunisian scenario’ could not play out in Egypt, its trade minister has said, arguing conditions differ.
Dr. Achy of the Carnegie Middle East Center says some of the factors in Tunisia are absent in Egypt: Tunisians are more highly educated and more likely to live in mid-sized cities – thus their aspirations are higher.
But Egypt has a huge youth population that shares a disproportionate burden of the country’s unemployment; those under 30 account for 60 percent of the population but about 90 percent of the jobless. Youths are growing restless under 82-year-old President Hosni Mubarak, who has increasingly clamped down on dissent in the past year.
Though liberalization has helped the economy grow, many Egyptians say they don’t feel their lives are improving. As global food prices and inflation in Egypt rise, the government will need to carefully manage issues like unemployment and food security, says Achy.
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.”
Ben Ali gone, but corrupt system still in place
As for Tunisia, it's unclear to what extent angry protesters will succeed in overhauling the way their country is run.
While early elections are to be held by mid-March, the country’s opposition is atrophied from decades of being smothered by the regime. And the corrupt and powerful system Ben Ali built did not disappear when his jet left Tunis. The man who has assumed the presidency, Mr. Mebazaa, is himself a part of the system that protesters rallied to bring down.
But Tunisian activists are undeterred.
“We feel overwhelming happiness and hope,” says Naziha Rejiba, a long-time human rights activists and independent journalist in Tunisia reached by phone. “But there are also questions about the future. The people of Tunisia brought down a dictator. But now we must work to build a democratic society in Tunisia.”