January 11, 2011
A few weeks ago Mahomed Bouazizi, a 26 year-old unemployed Tunisian graduate, set himself on fire. The Tunisian police had confiscated the fruits and vegetables he was apparently selling on the streets without a proper permit. His subsequent death and burial shocked the Tunisian student community, which raised up in revolt against the lack of employment opportunities and the iron-fisted, dictatorial rule of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in power since 1987.
The riots have escalated last Sunday, leading to an official death toll of 14, although the protesters claim that 25 people were killed by Tunisian police and security forces. All this happened in a country that was hailed by the World Economic Forum in 2010 as the most dynamic African economy. Universities and high schools have recently been closed by the Tunisian authorities, whilst Ben Ali has promised on national television to create 300,000 jobs in 2011 and to invest 5 billion USD in long-neglected areas of the economy. In a bizarre twist of events, the authorities have also arrested two bloggers and hacked into the Facebook and Twitter accounts of Tunisians believed to be calling for a social revolution in the country via the social networks. Like Ceausescu before him, the Tunisian president claims the riots were the work of external forces and “terrorists” wearing masks who attacked innocent civilians…
Although Tunisia is a fairly stable African country (since independence from France only two presidents have ruled the country), the current president is known not to tolerate any form of dissent and stands accused by his opponents of nepotism and major-scale corruption. Unemployment among the country’s graduates stands at more than 20 percent. According to a French businessman in Tunisia, it is not uncommon to meet petrol station attendants with a doctorate in mathematics, chambermaids holding full English degrees and sociology graduates as street vendors. The current crisis which affects the EU, and especially France, has made it difficult for young graduates to migrate across the Mediterranean in search of work.
The Algerian riots
The Tunisian unrest is mirrored in Algeria, where university and high school students, union workers and lawyers have rioted over the weekend against the lack of employment opportunities and soaring food prices. Less dictatorial than president Ben Ali of Tunisia, Abdelaziz Bouteflika – a septuagenarian himself- allows the Opposition to own newspapers and organise legal protests. Still, in a country where 70 percent of the population is under 30 and unemployment among the young is as high as 25 percent, most students and graduates are getting ever more desperate with the lack of gainful employment.
Algeria is oil and gas-rich and the government was quick to try to quell the riots which have engulfed the provinces of the country, by promising to subsidise food prices again, to levels approaching those before the price increases.
The dire employment situation afflicts other Arab countries as well, such as Egypt. As Saudi Arabia’s Arab News reports, the economic woes combined with political sclerosis at the top could ignite rioting across the entire Arab world, if meaningful political changes and stimulative economic measures are not forthcoming. To their credit, the EU, the US and the UN leaders have condemned the violence employed by Algerian and Tunisian security forces against the rioters and have called on the two governments to resort to social dialogue and to find solutions to the problems which brought demonstrators onto the streets in the first place. (Le Monde, NYT, Al Jazeera, Arab News, www.islampolicy.com, Deutsche Welle, Reuters)Florian Pantazi