Tunisia protests target unemployment, repression
Published Jan 6, 2011 9:35 PM
A series of demonstrations struck Tunisia beginning Dec. 17. A 26-year-old
university graduate, Mohamed Bouazizi of Sidi Bouzid in the southern province,
who reportedly set himself on fire to protest the dire economic circumstances
in the country, served as a catalyst for the recent outbreak of protests that
have hit the capital and several other cities throughout the country.
A former French colony, Tunisia has been considered a close ally of Western
capitalist states. Developments since mid-December have highlighted the impact
of the world economic crisis on the North African nation of 10.4 million
Unemployment has been cited as hovering above 30 percent among the youth in a
nation where many people are literate and Western-oriented in their values and
social outlook. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has been in office since
1987. Serving his fifth term, with the possibility of standing for reelection,
he recently fired several key governmental officials in a cabinet reshuffle due
to political fallout after the nationwide demonstrations.
Although investments in the national economy have resulted in a high literacy
rate, an increase in health care facilities, and access to potable water,
electricity and transportation, the government has not been able to create
enough jobs to absorb the growing labor market. Adding to the country’s
social problems is the fact that growth has been concentrated in
Tunisia’s north and eastern coastline regions.
Demonstrations began peacefully on Dec. 18, but were met with police repression
that led to efforts to occupy the government headquarters in Sidi Bouzid. Youth
threw stones at the building and police vehicles, allegedly injuring several
cops. (Magharebia.com, Dec. 30)
Youth unemployment is a major source of discontent in Tunisia. The
Magharebia.com website reported: “According to official statistics, the
number of jobless people in the country is about 500,000.”
This same source continues: “The figures also show that a breakthrough in
the situation is not likely to take place soon as the number of university
graduates rose from 40,000 to about 80,000 during the last five years. To
tackle the problem, the state must create 425,000 jobs in the next five years
and reduce the unemployment rate by 1.5 percent to ensure at least one source
of income for each household.”
Background to the current crisis
Tunisia is the site of the ancient city-state of Carthage. Its location placed
it historically near strategic shipping routes. France’s direct colonial
rule ended in 1956, and the country was headed by Habib Bourguiba until 1987.
President Ben Ali took control and has been the leader for the last 23
Western imperialist states consider Tunisia to be one of the most stable
countries in the North African and Middle Eastern region. The country is a
producer and exporter of olive oil and an important tourist destination for
During the 1990s the government attempted to establish controls over the
working class movement. There is one large federation, the Tunisian General
Labor Union (UGTT), which has not engaged in any significant militant activity
over the last two decades.
However, in the current period, growing numbers of organizers in the trade
union movement have sought to take a more independent stance by initiating
demands for wage increases and better working conditions. In 2008 as well as in
early 2010, union activists were successful in staging protests against
conditions in the Gafsa mining basin.
The December protests followed a pattern similar to those in 2008 and 2010.
Education unions, which have been some of the most militant and outspoken
within the UGTT, took the lead by organizing students and the unemployed to
demand job creation and an end to official corruption.
(mideast.foreignpolicy.com, Jan. 2)
Despite Washington’s regular criticism of governments that it has
targeted for regime-change in Africa for their purported lack of democratic
institutions, it has expressed only satisfaction with authoritarian rule in
In an article by Intissar Khreeji published Jan. 3 by Al Jazeera, the author
states: “U.S. and European governments have consistently privileged one
limb of the ‘stability-democracy’ equation, on the grounds that the
repression of entire populations in the Arab world is but a small price to pay
for the stable conditions necessary for us to benefit from the vast economic
opportunities in the region and the counter-terrorism assistance they can give
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