An explosion of popular protest has broken out in North Africa over the past few weeks, with anti-government demonstrations and riots continuing in both Tunisia and Algeria.
Localised unrest first began in Tunisia in mid-December, sparked by the attempted suicide of 26-year old graduate Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself alight outside a government building in protest at the police seizure of his fruit and vegetable stall, reportedly for selling without a permit.
Protests in Tunisia – a repressive, western-backed de-facto dictatorship – are rare, but Bouazizi’s action brought issues which have been simmering for years to a head and proved to be the catalyst for nationwide demonstrations. While he has since died in hospital, the rioting and protests have continued.
A number of factors lie behind the unrest – high graduate and youth unemployment, endemic corruption among the elites and government officials, and rampant inequality. On top of this, global food prices are at crisis point, reaching a record high last month.
What started as a rebellion of urban youth has now developed into a much broader front against the repressive government of Ben Ali, who’s been president for 23 years. Thousands of lawyers have been on strike and in the streets, demanding an end to the brutal repression of the protests, of which the death toll is continuing to mount. Trade unions have held mass rallies against unemployment, which have also been attacked by security forces. However, clear reports of what’s happening on the ground are hard to come by – foreign journalists are banned from the country, meaning almost all reports abroad are relying on agency copy. Inside Tunisia, journalists are being banned from towns in which protests are going on, and the government have come down heavy on social media and internet reportage.
Indeed, it’s interesting to compare the media coverage the Tunisian uprising has had with the much-feted, not dissimilar, protests in Iran in 2009/10, in that case over a disputed election result. While the ‘Green Revolution’ dominated headlines for weeks, the Tunisian protests have hardly merited a passing mention on mainstream news broadcasts, and the angle taken has been noticeably different. Whereas with Iran, media outlets played up the pro-democracy, pro-human rights youthful activists WITH TWITTER vs. repressive government aspect of it, this has been virtually absent from what little has been said about Tunisia. As one commentator over at Al Jazeera has asked, could the reason be that the Tunisian government – ranked alongside North Korea in terms of its internet censorship – is an ally of the west, and thus doesn’t fit the familiar, easy to understand narrative of nasty baddie Arab regime vs. secular, democratic western opposition? Indeed, while the US and other governments regularly condemn the Iranian government for their crackdowns on dissent, we’ve yet to see any similar pronouncements regarding Ben Ali’s regime in Tunisia. Apart from in secret, that is, with one leaked US embassy cable describing the country as a “police-state”, and laying bare the reality of the regime. Maybe it’s something to do with the fact that Tunisia uses American technology to enforce its strict internet censorship policy, and recieves millions of dollars of US military aid every year as an ally in the ‘war on terror’. Hmm.
In neighbouring Algeria, protests broke out last week, sparked by rapidly rising food prices, with the cost of some commodities up 20-30 percent in recent days, coupled with massive youth unemployment. Like in Tunisia, rioting and demonstrations have spread rapidly across the country. The Algerian Socialist Workers Party (no relation lol) have said in a statement that I’ve badly interpreted from Google Translate:
For several months the discontent has been bubbling. In fighting for the elusive bag of milk, in search of a bakery open, the rage at those billions stolen in front of them: princely gifts made to the Gulf emirs, the lords, or the Algerian kings of Europe, all exempt of tax.
The origin of the explosion, increasing the price of sugar, oil and groceries. The sight of the legitimate revolt of young people of Tunisia, of course, inspired the protests. The distribution of social housing has rekindled the hatred of corruption. We are asked to wait, but we see the fortunes ride without waiting.
Wage increases achieved in the public sector after years of struggle, strikes, repression, are ridiculous for working classes, that is to say for the majority. And these increases are not yet implemented everywhere, and are already eaten by higher prices.
The final outcome of the revolts in both countries remains to be seen, but what’s become clear from the protests is the huge level of discontent at high unemployment, lack of opportunity and the rising cost of living, which is continuing to mount. Mass arrests, repression, censorship and state murders have so far failed to quell protests in either country: while Algeria is accustomed to demonstrations of this kind, Tunisia is not, raising the possibility that they could spread throughout the region.
Pour les libertés d’expression, d’organisation, de manifestation et de grève !