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Understanding Tunisia's Tremors

Author: Deborah Jerome, Deputy Editor
January 14, 2011

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Tunisia's government is struggling to contain weeks of violent demonstrations (NYT) that began when an unemployed twenty-six-year-old university graduate set himself on fire in December in the central-western city of Sidi-Bouzid. His act triggered protests stemming from widespread frustration with high unemployment, repression, and government corruption. The U.S. State Department has advised U.S. citizens to put off non-essential travel (Reuters) to Tunisia, citing "intensifying political and social" unrest, which has spread from the impoverished interior of the country to the relatively affluent capital in Tunis.

Dozens of people (NYT) have reportedly died in the protests, which many say have been fanned by social media (BBC) through networks on Facebook and Twitter. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, whose government has held power since 1987, promised not to run for office (WSJ) again when his term expires in 2014 and ordered the government to cut prices on sugar, milk, and bread, but his pledge hasn't satisfied protesters in Tunis, who are calling for him to quit now.

Earlier, Ben Ali fired Interior Minister Rafik Belhaj Kacem (WashPost), the governor of Sidi-Bouzid province, and the communications minister. He also tried tightening control over social and other media and has put Tunis under curfew (CSMonitor). At the same time, the government promised to investigate corruption allegations (Bloomberg), to create three hundred thousand jobs, and to guarantee that by the end of 2012 the government will provide jobs to all graduates who have been unemployed for more than two years.

Tunisia's unemployment rate (Economist) is around 13 percent, though it's double that for young people and higher still for recent college graduates. This is largely attributed to the economic policies of the authoritarian Ben Ali, who seized control from Habib Bourguiba twenty-four years ago. Ben Ali's government has fostered higher education but has encouraged an economy largely based on tourism (ForeignPolicy) and low-skilled jobs, creating a mismatch between skills and opportunities. Tunisia's growth has also focused on the country's coastal areas, with little job generation in the interior, where the protests began.

Repression and corruption are the two other major issues fueling anger. Reporters Without Borders calls Ben Ali a "predator" who has kept Tunisia and its reporters under tight control despite periodic pledges to promote greater press freedom and diversity. There's also anger at what is seen as the extravagant lifestyle of Ben Ali's second wife, Leila Trabelsi (NYT), and their extended family. U.S. concerns about the family's behavior and official corruption emerged in WikiLeaks documents released last year, and have reportedly added to public outrage.

Even before Ben Ali's speech January 13 promising to step down, some commentators speculated as to whether Ben Ali's long run as a president (France24) is over and whether he's facing "an Eastern European-style velvet revolution" (Economist). Arab regimes are reportedly watching carefully as protests spread not only in Tunisia, but in Algeria as well, where there were riots last week over soaring sugar and cooking oil prices. "In Egypt and Saudi Arabia, young people have been showing solidarity with Tunisians and Algerians, spreading their message of discontent across the Internet," writes Roula Khalaf in the Financial Times.

In a speech in Doha on January 13, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Arab governments (NYT) that they risk unrest if they fail to improve their economies and address corruption and political repression. "In too many places, in too many ways, the region's foundations are sinking into the sand," Clinton said.

Analysis

Tunisia's protests suggest Ben Ali's regime has no future, writes CFR's Elliot Abrams in this blog post.

The days of "gendarme" states like Tunisia's could be numbered in the Middle East, writes CFR's Steven Cook.

Protests in Tunisia and Algeria are part of a rising tide of popular dissatisfaction with illiberal, unreformed Arab rule, writes Simon Tisdall in the Guardian.

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