Friday, January 7, 2011

Tunisia and Algeria: North African States of Unrest

Reports of civil unrest and suicidal protests in Algeria and Tunisia these past two weeks are highlighting the precarious conditions under which many people across the world live: on the verge of starvation, hopelessly unemployed and frequently homeless.  For decades these two neighboring nations have been considered relatively stable, if authoritarian African countries; with education and other economic indicators of prosperity on the rise.  However, more recently circumstances for Algerians and Tunisians have taken a turn for the worse, and a generation of youth has taken to the streets, demanding the right to opportunity, employment and price stability.

President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali
Perhaps the most shocking story emanating so far from North Africa is the story of a 26-year-old Tunisian graduate student, Mohammed Bouazizi, who died two days ago from his injuries after setting himself on fire on December 17th in an act of suicidal protest.  Bouazizi, unable to find any meaningful work, had taken to selling fruits and vegetables out of a cart to earn money, until police confiscated his cart for lacking a vendor's permit.  His hopeless decision to douse himself in gasoline and light himself on fire has been a call to arms for thousands of disenfranchised Tunisians, especially educated youths, who are facing the same circumstances as Bouazizi, and who are now protesting daily against a government which normally maintains strict social control through violent coercion.  Bouazizi's funeral procession was attended by an estimated 5,000 people.

There has been at least one other suicide-protest, two protesters were shot on Christmas-eve, and thousands of lawyers have gone on strike in solidarity with other lawyers who have been beaten, arrested and tortured by Tunisian police.  Thousands of protesters are in the streets daily across the country.  The Tunisian Federation of Labour Unions has seen their organised protests quashed by violent police.  The Tunisian president Ben Ali, who has been president for 23 years and is usually 're-elected' with a 95%+ majority, has addressed the nation on television, saying protests are unacceptable and are bad for the economy, and that the law will be applied firmly.

The situation in Algeria is roughly the same.  Among the youth, hopes for a stable and prosperous future have fallen to a critical level, with food prices rising 20-30% in the past few days.  Fuel and material prices are also rising sharply.  Many Algerians cannot afford such increases in daily necessities as the cost of housing is so high:  In 2003 an earthquake destroyed roughly one-million apartment units which have yet to be replaced, despite promises by the president and government.  This lack of supply has caused the cost of available housing to rise significantly and has led to homelessness and crowded residences.  According to the IMF, 75% of Algerians are under the age of 30, of whom 20% are unemployed.  Actual unemployment rates are higher, and among the employed, under-employment and low wages are a major problem with so many Algerians competing for jobs.  There has been looting of food outlets and stores closing in shopping districts.

It remains to be seen how authorities will ultimately deal with the growing riots and civil unrest, in both Tunisia and Algeria.  While the government of Tunisia has a large police force, and Algeria a well-armed and experienced anti-terrorism apparatus, neither government has faced such a spontaneous and popular uprising, according to many sources.  Such is the fate of nations who fail to redress social inequality, poverty, and despair amongst their people.

This short video by essiklibon taken from Youtube shows a typical protest in the tight streets of Tunisian cities.

Please read more about the current situation in Algeria and Tunisia here: