Tunisian unrest exposes 'domestic frustration'

Observers underplay the government's suggestion that the riots and protests are being driven by the hidden hands of foreign forces.

A debate is under way in the opinion pages of Arab newspapers and on satellite television networks, as well as in social media sites such as Facebook, over the causes and implications of the protests that have badly shaken Tunisia.

The debate intensified yesterday as Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, the North African country's 74-year-old president, deployed the military in central Tunis as the protests reached the capital city for the first time.

Analysts say the unrest, which started when Mohamed Bouazizi, a young university graduate, immolated himself in the town of Sidi Bouzid after police confiscated the fruits and vegetables he was selling without a permit, is the result of domestic frustration, especially among young people, over years of high unemployment and political stagnation in the former French colony. It is unlikely, they say, that it is being driven by the hidden hands of foreign forces as the government has suggested.

In Tunisia, as in neighbouring Algeria and other North African countries, "there have been efforts in the area of education, but they did not think of ways to integrate young graduates into the community, an integration that happens through employment," said Driss Benali, an economist from Mohammed V University in Rabat.

Protests in Algeria last week, in which four people were killed, ebbed after the government slashed prices of staples such as cooking oil and sugar.

Claire Spencer, a Middle East analyst at Chatham House in London, said that poverty is widespread in central Tunisia, where the protests in that country originated. The demonstrators, who were originally mainly unemployed graduates, have been joined by high school students, unionists and lawyers.

"In a country like Tunisia which is small - with 10 million people and fairly homogenous - it has been noticeable in recent years that investment has gone into the coastal areas where the tourist trade is and the capital and very little in the interior," Ms Spencer said. "So it's not a coincidence that the province where this started was near the Algerian border where levels of unemployment is high."

She added that "in principle", Tunisians for years "put up with the heavy-handedness of the government because they provided them with work" but that contract is being eroded by the youth unemployment, which officially stands at 14 per cent but is believed to be much higher in many areas.

The government has attempted to ban websites including social networking sites such as Facebook and video sharing sites such as YouTube and Daily Motion that are playing a large role in the crisis, as they did in Iran following the Islamic republic's disputed 2009 election. But the Tunisian protesters continue to use the websites to share gruesome images of wounded and dead protestors and to organise further demonstrations.

"The protests have certainly been fed by the overreaction of arresting bloggers, who apart from disseminating information had nothing to do with it," said Ms Spencer, noting Tunisia has also criticised the Al Jazeera satellite network for broadcasting bloody images of the protests taken by camera phones.

Some Arab commentators this week asked if a new political chapter was under way in Tunisia.

"There has been no ideas or calls for change until now. It is all a matter of employment demands and protests against the increase in the prices of oil and sugar. However, the psychological barrier that had impeded protest has probably been lifted," said Abdul Rahman al Rashed in the Arab daily Asharq Al Awsat.

"If Tunisia, with its powerful security machine, has failed to stifle mutiny and had to resort to live ammunition, and if Algeria with its immense financial surplus has been exposed in the widespread protests that forced it to recoil, this suggests that the two prevailing governance models in the Arab world, the security model and the financial model, have failed in the confrontation in the streets," he said.

Abdul Bari Atwan, the editor-in-chief of Al Quds Al Arabi, added in a commentary that "it is hard to anticipate what the outcome of these protests would be, or whether they would stop or continue."

"Peoples, as regimes, often surprise us ... These people aren't only asking for a decent livelihood, but they are also reclaiming their dignity, as they aspire for the day when the Arab nation reclaims its role and status among nations."

* With additional reporting by AP and AFP