Youth revolts in Tunisia and Egypt could spread throughout the Maghreb and the Arab World as the discontented masses take to the streets.
Street clamor is not exactly the same in Egypt as in Tunisia
In Tunisia, a popular insurrection knocked down a dictator for the first time in Arab history. In the meantime, the largest protests in decades have broken out in Egypt. Could Morocco and Algeria be next?
Tunisia’s revolution generated tremors not just in Egypt. Throughout the Maghreb, authoritarian regimes like those in Morocco and Algeria have a difficult time addressing the frustration and despair of their young populations. Could the revolutionary example set in Tunisia take root among its neighbors?
The revolution arose on mid December when a desperate, unemployed computer scientist named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the small town of Sidi Bouzid. Bouazizi’s death symbolized the despair of a generation, triggering a series of general protests that ultimately swept longtime dictator President Ben Ali from power.
“We have 13 percent unemployment but the figures in the interior of the country are significantly higher, sometimes upwards of 70 percent,” said Adelwahab El Hani, a Tunisian human rights lawyer from Sidi Bouzid. “80,000 Tunisians have just finished up with their studies and they need jobs. That’s an enormous challenge for the government.”
Extreme imbalances and poor human rights records
One Tunisian student said it was like the top cover had shot off of a pressure cooker. He wasn’t just alluding to his homeland, but to the entire Maghreb. In Morocco, half the population is under 25 years old and 40 percent of them do not have a steady job. Young graduates are especially hard hit. The grumbling from the streets has become audible. Sure, there are limited political freedoms, woman’s rights, a parliament and a government – but no genuine open democracy. The military and secret police are omnipresent. The social imbalances are extreme.
“Motives for these kinds of revolts are all over the Maghreb,” said Francis Ghiles, from the Center for International Studies in Barcelona. “The elites in Morocco live the high life, but that doesn’t guarantee social stability. The pie can’t just belong to the rich. When there’s no redistribution of wealth, when the upper class parades around arrogantly, then there will be revolt someday.”
In Algeria it has already reached that point. This massive land is a social barrel of gunpowder. In January there were wounded during protests against high grocery prices. In many Algerian cities, the young expressed their rage in a flurry of stones, tear gas grenades and Molotov cocktails.
Algeria’s government promised to take decisive action, but the country is politically stagnant. Longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is supported by a corrupt clique of military officers and secret police. Three-fourths of Algerians are under 30. Most of them do not have jobs, lodging or perspective. All this despite the fact that the state strongboxes are full with money from oil and gas exports.
Algeria “has accumulated 150 billion euros in foreign exchange,” Ghiles said. “The problem is not a lack of money, but a clientele economy. It’s a casino. There’s no order, no plan, no perspective. And on top of that the government is autistic. Those in power just don’t listen, they don’t see the problems of their people, or they simply just don’t want to see.”
But now they have to see. A growing number of desperate, well-educated young people are extinguishing themselves in gasoline and lighting themselves on fire: In Egypt, in Yemen, in Mauretania and also in Algeria. Just like Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia, whose final act of self-determination set a whole country in flames.
Ghiles believes that the so called “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia is a historic event that has shaken the entire Maghreb. However, he does not believe that it will set off a domino effect which collapses other authoritarian regimes throughout the region. The Moroccan King Mohammed VI has a broad power base and his role as the highest religious leader of the Moroccan people lends him additional legitimacy.
In Algeria the middle class, which played a critical role in Tunisia, has largely disappeared. There has been social turmoil for years, but the regime has never been seriously threatened. The military and secret police are so tightly connected with the halls of power and the oil and natural gas industries that they have too much to lose in a revolution.
In glaring contrast to Tunisia, the Algerian army would gun down demonstrators. And nobody wants a new civil war in Algeria – the last one cost 200,000 lives. Even if the states of the Maghreb do not fall like dominoes, Tunisia serves as a warning. When these kinds of events repeat themselves, like recently in Algeria or a few years ago in Morocco, or even in Tunisia or Egypt, then governments have to draw some conclusions. If they don’t do that, then the pressure cook will explode – just somewhat later.
Francis Ghiles, The Maghreb refuses to share, Le Monde Diplomatique, Feb. 2010; El Coste del No-Maghreb, IEMed and ToledoPax, Madrid, May 2006 and Barcelona, Nov. 2007.