Discontent in many parts of North Africa and Middle East has the same roots
With the strike of a match, Mohamed Bouazizi did more than take his own life - he ignited the dormant anger of a generation. The 26-year-old graduate, who died from self-inflicted burns on Wednesday, was beaten by police because he was selling fruit and vegetables on the street in Sidi Bouzid in central Tunisia without a permit. Since then, his desperate act has echoed across the region.
On Saturday, at least nine other people were killed, as the Tunisian president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali sent troops into the streets.
The Tunisian unrest has in turn inspired protests in Egypt and fierce rioting in Algeria in recent days. Yesterday Algiers reported that three had been killed and more than 1,000 arrested, mostly minors. Saudi graduates also took to the streets, protesting against the lack of opportunities available to them.
Many countries in the region share the same set of problems that have led to the unrest: high unemployment, rising food prices, little recourse to justice and a resounding absence of human rights. This popular uprising began in the streets in recent weeks, but the threads of opposition and grievances against these regimes are decades old. In Tunisia, in the 23 years since Mr Ben Ali took power, dissidents, journalists and activists have been repressed.
But this has been a month of unchecked challenge to Mr Ben Ali's continued presidency. If he were to go - he has three years left before he is constitutionally too old to stand for re-election - there will remain a serious vacuum of credibility. His son-in-law and probable successor, Mohammad Sakher el Materi, has his own problems; allegations that he lives a lavish lifestyle, in a country where so many are struggling, have damaged his standing.
Riots in Tunisia and Algeria may have very different outcomes, but there is a common lesson. The growing number of young people and rising unemployment across the region mean that tensions are likely to persist. One tool Gulf states can use to help quell the tensions is to increase their trade links with North African nations, helping to buttress their economic growth and create opportunities.
But countries in the Gulf, and really any outside influence, can only do so much to address what are internal and systemic problems for nations such as Tunisia and Algeria. More protests and more lost lives may be on the horizon since problems in these countries will take time to address. If citizens have political options besides taking to the streets, their grievances are less likely to result in violence and the senseless bloodshed of recent days.
Updated: January 10, 2011 04:00 AM