•  HOME 
  •  BOOKS 
  •  WWP 
  •  DONATE 
  • Loading

Follow workers.org on
Twitter Facebook iGoogle

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 people.

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 years.

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 Europeans.

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 Tunisia.

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 us.”