It is perhaps unsurprising that the American media has largely ignored growing unrest in Tunisia. North Africa has rarely inspired widespread US coverage, but what’s happening there could mark a paradigm shift.
Widespread protests were catalyzed by the mid-December suicide attempt of Mohammed Bouazizi. Bouazizi, a twenty six year old college graduate, immolated himself in response to rampant unemployment and poor treatment by Tunisian police. He has since succumbed to third degree burns. His action sparked a series of protests throughout Tunisia. While the protests may have begun in response to social and economic conditions, they have now become a full-fledged political uprising.
Thirty five people have reportedly been killed in the clashes between police and protestors. The initial government response of police repression has not squelched the protests, if anything they are growing. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s hold on power is becoming more tenuous; he has fired the Interior Minister (who controlled the police) and promised to hold inquiries into violent police repression. In a further effort to appease protestors, he pledged to create 300,000 new jobs. The Tunisian stock market has plummeted in the past week. The Tunisian government has imposed a dusk to dawn curfew, which rioters continue to defy. Tunisia seems to be on the brink. It is not alone; protestors have also taken to the streets in neighboring Algeria over the rising cost of food and unemployment.
Tunisia is a democracy in name only. Since its independence in 1956, it has been ruled by the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party, a repressive, autocratic regime. The Tunisian style of rule is not unfamiliar in the Middle East. Autocratic Arab regimes have long relied on political repression and media control to maintain their hold on the so called “Arab street” and any democratic forces. Shifting economic realities, a burgeoning young populace, and wider access to independent media may mean that these tactics will no longer be sufficient to retain power. President Ben Ali’s unconvincing moves toward conciliation may not be enough to tamp down the unrest in Tunisia. The Tunisian regime may have to allow for real democratic participation, or face a revolution. And Tunisia may not be alone. Arab leaders are sure to be warily watching North Africa.