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Protest by Suicide Highlights Economic and Political Oppression in Tunisia
Mass spontaneous demonstrations erupted on December 17 in the city of Sidi Bouzid in central Tunisia when 26-year-old Mohammad Bouazizi doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire after a female police officer slapped and spat on him. The only crime Bouazizi committed was that of being a street vendor selling vegetables and fruits without a permit

Protest by Suicide Highlights Economic and Political Oppression in Tunisia

Mass spontaneous demonstrations erupted on December 17 in the city of Sidi Bouzid in central Tunisia when 26-year-old Mohammad Bouazizi doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire after a female police officer slapped and spat on him. The only crime Bouazizi committed was that of being a street vendor selling vegetables and fruits without a permit

Mass spontaneous demonstrations erupted on December 17 in the city of Sidi Bouzid in central Tunisia when 26-year-old Mohammad Bouazizi doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire after a female police officer slapped and spat on him. The only crime Bouazizi committed was that of being a street vendor selling vegetables and fruits without a permit, in a country where neoliberal economic policies failed to provide economic opportunities to him and thousands of others like him.[1]

Bouazizi’s attempted suicide, which comes hard on the heels of police humiliation and confiscation of his only source of income, reveals the utter despair prevalent today among Tunisia’s population, especially college graduates. Twenty-four years of ruthless corruption, dictatorship and neoliberal economic policies led to a concentration of wealth in the hands of a very few people connected to President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s family and that of his wife, the Trabelsi’s. Bouazizi, a college graduate,[2] was trying to live in dignity and provide for his family by becoming a street vendor, a choice he was forced to make despite the fact that he lived in a country that is considered an economic miracle and one of the “African lions” by Western economic monitors and analysts.[3]

The miserable economic conditions in the interior of the country and the lack of employment opportunities and political freedoms pushed Bouazizi, like thousands of other young men and women in the Maghreb countries, to the margins of society. Tunisia’s national unemployment rate, which understates the true unemployment situation, stands at 14 percent.[4] However, the youth unemployment rate (applying to Tunisians between 15 and 24 years old) is at 31 percent. The income share of the top 10 percent is approximately 32 percent, and the top 20 percent of the population controls 47 percent of Tunisia’s income. Tunisia’s inequality is so severe that the bottom 60 percent of the population earns only 30 percent of the country’s income (the top 40 percent take home 70 percent).[5] Still, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) describes the government management of the economy and the uneven economic growth which benefited mainly northern and coastal cities while marginalizing the interior of the country as “prudent macroeconomic management.” [6]

The despicable behavior of the police officer who assaulted Bouazizi is not uncommon in Tunisia and is condoned by the police state, which ignores basic human rights, shows no respect for the dignity of its citizens and does not tolerate any signs of dissent. Poverty, unemployment and oppression pushed yet another young man to commit suicide just a few days later after Bouazizi’s attempt. On December 22, Hussein Nagi Felhi, also unemployed, succeeded in committing suicide by climbing a high-voltage electric power line. He was electrocuted and died on the scene. Witnesses say the young man was shouting, “No for misery, no for unemployment!” as he climbed the electric pylon.[7]

The epidemic of youth unemployment, inequality, political repression and lack of any meaningful freedoms inflamed solidarity among the population, which took to the streets in spontaneous protests. Within days of Bouazizi’s attempted suicide and the suicide of Felhi, protests spread across the country and reached the capital, Tunis, and are still ongoing, even in the face of a total national media blackout and police brutality that resulted in the killing of an 18-year-old. This is not the first time that Ben Ali, the dictator of Tunisia, faced street anger over joblessness and economic misery during his 24-year reign, but the recent protests are by far the most serious challenge to his rule. About three years ago, in January 2008, his security apparatus crushed protesters in the southern mining town of Redhayef when workers and young people protested wages and unemployment.[8] At that time, over 300 people were arrested as a result of the protests.[9] This time, the desperation among the population has reached the boiling point. Aided by social media, some protesters launched a Facebook page to document riots and share news, although the government promptly shuts down any protest-linked websites.[10] The demonstrations are increasing in intensity and show no signs of abating. The protesters are fed up with the status quo of a self-enriching and corrupt ruling family, which is the de facto governing system in the Middle East and North Africa.

A Western Ally: The Hypocrisy of Western Neoliberal and Foreign Policies

Respect for human rights and freedom of the press is almost nonexistent in Tunisia. The Heritage Foundation Index of Economic Freedom labels the country as a “mostly unfree” nation marginally close to being repressed – its lowest score.[11] Transparency International ranks Tunisia among its seriously corrupt nations with a score of 4.3 on a scale of one to ten (where one is most corrupt and ten is free of corruption). According to the Freedom House Index, Tunisia is considered “not free”[12]; this is no surprise in a country where the government controls almost all aspects of people’s lives. Young people are especially tightly controlled and monitored. The government’s Ministry of Education, Higher Education and Scientific Research even decides into which fields of study students will be placed for their postsecondary education.[13]

Although the protests spreading across the country took on the form of social unrest for the first few days, they rapidly metamorphosed in the following ten days to become a mass political rally by the people. The protesters are now on the streets, calling openly for Ben Ali to leave office by carrying signs in the Tunisian Arabic dialect that read “Yezzi Fock” (Ben Ali, it is enough), the protesters’ political slogan. Labor and industry unions, which have played an active role in public life since independence from France, are also supporting the protesters. Ben Ali, who is nearing 80 years of age, is very aware of the gravity of the situation and the real threat to his grip on power. His first reaction was to preempt the protesters by firing some local officials, replacing some ministers in his cabinet and then immediately promising more investment and job creation, all the while appearing to remain completely oblivious to his record after 24 years in power. When these empty promises failed to deflate the protesters’ anger, he resorted to the routine policies of riot police and explicit threats directed to his citizens. Facing the most serious unrest in the history of his rule, Ben Ali took to the airways and gave a televised address in response to the demonstrations. He vowed to punish “the minority of extremists,” whom he blamed for the riots (as he calls them), and also indicated that these protests “will have a negative impact on creating jobs. It will discourage investors and tourists, which will hit jobs.”[14] It appears that the president’s main concern is the tourism industry, which several WikiLeaks cables revealed is tightly controlled by his family and the Trabelsi’s.

The Tunisian dictator and his family are touted by Western governments as an example of a stable and progressive North African Muslim nation. The IMF hails their neoliberal economic policies are hailed as prudent and wise, yet these policies primarily benefited Ben Ali’s family and that of his wife, in addition to other well-connected wealthy Tunisians. In one incident of corruption revealed by Wikileaks, the president’s son-in-law purchased a 17 percent share of a bank just before it was to be privatized and then sold the shares at a premium. Readings from US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks underscore that success in the Tunisian economy is directly related to connection to the first family. Income and regional inequalities are on the rise in Tunisia. Job creation and widespread prosperity promised by defunct orthodox economic dictates never trickled down to the masses or even materialized for most unemployed college graduates in a country where net migration has been steadily increasing, from negative 16,000 in 1980 to negative 80,000 in 2005.

The Tunisian government is an important ally for the US in its resource-driven colonial wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. A United Nations report on secret detention practices found that Tunisia is home to secret detention facilities where prisoners are held without International Red Cross access.[15]

Intelligence services in Tunisia cooperated with the US efforts in the war on terror and have participated in interrogating prisoners at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan and in Tunisia. Recent WikiLeaks diplomatic cables reveal that the US not long ago was concerned about the growing anger on the streets and the corruption of the Ben Ali and Trabelsi families, who treat everything in the country as theirs. A list of WikiLeaks cables from the US Embassy in Tunisia posted on The Guardian’s web site indicate that the US considers Tunisia to be a police state “with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems,” and the Ben Ali family as a “quasi mafia.”[16]

Nevertheless, the State Department boasts about the active support the Tunisian security forces receive from the US in spite of the Ben Ali government’s record of serious human rights violations. According to the State Department web site:

The United States and Tunisia have an active schedule of joint military exercises. U.S. security assistance historically has played an important role in cementing relations. The U.S.-Tunisian Joint Military Commission meets annually to discuss military cooperation, Tunisia’s defense modernization program, and other security matters.[17]

The fate of the protests is unclear at this point. The Ben Ali government is frantically trying to control the situation by sending police and security enforcements into the affected cities. The protesters have been peaceful and have not resorted to any violence or destruction of property. Some protesters simply held a loaf of bread, and others are simply holding signs that call for jobs and dignity. In the meantime, the IMF is continuing to push Tunisia to more austere economic policies on the expenditure side, recommending that the government end its support for food and fuel products and “reform” its social security system, a code word for privatizing the country’s pension system, which benefits Tunisia’s poor masses.[18] The greatest hypocrisy of all is that the IMF recommends these policies – which are the cut-and-paste recipe for every nation it studies – in the name of greater employment and growth.

In the meantime, the Western international community has been largely silent about the protests. As the protests began, the US corporate-run media remained, as usual, busy selling air time to corporations eager to cash in on the Christmas holiday while simultaneously raising their prices to squeeze more out of their customers.[19] The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal didn’t report on the Tunisian protests at all. The US State Department remains tight-lipped on the issue and has yet to release any statement on the situation. The US government’s deafening silence confirms the inherent hypocrisy in US diplomatic and foreign policy, a hypocrisy that is widely known, detested and recently confirmed by WikiLeaks-released US diplomatic cables.

[1] See Al Jazeera story (in Arabic), December 23, 2010.

[2] There are conflicting reports on whether Mohammad Bouazizi is a college graduate or not, but most news sources indicate that he is.

[3] “African lions” is a term used by Boston Consulting Group to describe the eight countries driving growth on the continent: South Africa, Algeria, Botswana, Egypt, Mauritius, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. See Florence Beauge, “Economic power of the ‘African lions’ tallied,” The Guardian Weekly, June 10, 2010.

[4] “Tunisian President Vows to Punish Rioters After Worst Unrest in a Decade,” Julian Borger, The Guardian, December 29, 2010.

[5] World Bank Indicators.

[6] “Tunisia Weathers Crisis Well, But Unemployment Persists,” Joel Toujas-Bernate and Rina Bhattachary, IMF Survey Magazine: Countries & Regions, September 10, 2010.

[7] “Tunisia: Apparent Suicide Triggers Youth Protests Against Unemployment,” Amro Hassan, The Los Angeles Times, December 23, 2010.

[8] Human Rights Watch, World Report Chapter: Tunisia, January 2009.

[9] Amnesty International, “Behind Tunisia’s Economic Miracle: Inequality and Criminalization of Protests,” June 2009.

[10] The Facebook page for protesters.

[11] The Heritage Foundation, 2010 Index of Economic Freedom.

[12] Freedom House, “Freedom in the World Country Report,” 2010 edition, and Transparency International Corruption Index.

[13] “Unemployment Haunts Tunisia’s College Graduates,” Housa Trabelsi, The Megharebia, July 30, 2010.

[14] “Tunisian President Says Job Riots are Not Acceptable,” BBC, December 28, 2010.

[15] See United Nations report on secret detention practices.

[16] “US Embassy cables: Tunisia – a US Foreign Policy Conundrum,” The Guardian, December 7, 2010.

[17] Background Note: Tunisia, U.S. State Department, October 13, 2010.

[18] See note 4

[19] “Wal-Mart Raising Prices on Toys, Squeezing More Out of Holidays,” Matthew Boyle, Bloomberg News, December 15, 2010.

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