Commentary for Executive, 13 January (being re-written following Ben Ali's departure from Tunis)
The demonstrations in Tunisia over the past several weeks is the biggest news to have come out of the North African country in a long time. “All is well in Tunisia” is the usual officially parroted mantra. But what is happening there could be the first of many such intifadas (uprisings) in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) unless political-economic concerns are addressed and high unemployment is tackled in a region where over 50 percent of the population is under 30 years old.
The protests in Tunisia were triggered by unemployed university graduate Mohammed Bouazizi in the central town of Sidi Bouzid on 19 December 2010. Bouazizi had resorted to selling fruit on the street to make ends meet, but after police seized his produce he poured gas over himself in front of the town hall and set himself alight. Bouazizi's actions were literally the spark that prompted nationwide protests over unemployment, rampant corruption and the repressive leadership of President Zine Ben Ali .
Unemployment in Tunisia is officially 13 percent but presumed to be higher than 25 percent. While the country has had economic growth over the past decade, it has not been reflected across society or provided enough jobs for graduates. It is the same story throughout the MENA, which has the one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, according to an International Labor Organization report.
This year protests have taken place in Algeria, again over unemployment and dissatisfaction with government policies. Strikes were scheduled in Lebanon over high fuel prices - seemingly dropped due to the dissolution of parliament – and Egypt is on tender hooks due to the upcoming presidential elections. The region's more authoritarian regimes are no doubt keeping a close eye on Tunis to see the outcome, for if it can happen there it can happen anywhere, despite Tunisia being a police state.
In power since 1987, Ben Ali won the 2009 presidential elections with 89.62 percent of votes cast. In The Economist's 2010 Democracy Index, Tunisia ranked 144 out of 167 countries and was classified “an authoritarian regime.” In press freedoms, Tunisia ranked 164 out of 178 countries in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index 2010, lower than neighboring Libya.
Interestingly, a Wikileaks cable on Tunisia, written by United States Ambassador Robert Godec in 2009, almost predicts the current uprising: “Corruption in the inner circle is growing. Even average Tunisians are now keenly aware of it, and the chorus of complaints is rising. Tunisians intensely dislike, even hate, first lady Leila Trabelsi and her family...Meanwhile, anger is growing at Tunisia's high unemployment and regional inequities. As a consequence, the risks to the regime's long-term stability are increasing.”
Ben Ali however has gone about appeasing the protests in the typical manner of the archetype dictator. The largely peaceful protests were put down by force, over 50 have been killed as of going to press, and scores of demonstrators were arrested – most later released - on spurious charges. And rather than make the necessary sweeping economic and political changes the country needs and then gracefully stand down from office, like Ben Ali made his predecessor do - declaring President Bourguiba unfit to lead - Ben Ali has opted for the scape goat option: blaming the protests on the always convenient “outside forces” and “radical elements.” Yet considering the nationwide scale of the demonstrations and three public suicides by unemployed men, such excuses are laughable.
Ben Ali did make some concessions by firing four ministers, allocating part of the budget for job creation, and ordering the creation of a special committee to investigate corruption and the actions of some officials. But it is Ben Ali's wife and his immediate family that are, by all accounts, the biggest kleptocrats in Tunisia. It is time they went.
Even if Ben Ali survives this debacle, his support base will only be with the military apparatus and not the populace itself. Some are calling the demonstrations an intifada, and if it keeps on going, it might end up being called the Tunisian Revolution. It may even before the first of many in the MENA region in the years ahead. Indeed, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, addressing the Forum for the Future conference in Doha in mid January, made an unusually stark warning to Arab leaders that they will face unrest, extremism and even revolt unless economic and political reforms are enacted.
PAUL COCHRANE is the Middle East correspondent for International News Services