x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Tunisia: the regional response, country by country

The Tunisian revolt has been a new source of fear, pride and optimism across the region. The responses in the past week have ranged from tragic echoes of the suicide by fire of the unemployed graduate whose death sparked the revolt to leaders blaming Wikileaks for the protests.

Police officers clashing with demonstrators during a protest against Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in Tunis last Friday, January 14. The photographer that took this picture, Lucas Dolega, was later struck in the head by a tear gas canister fired by police and subsequently died of his injuries.
Police officers clashing with demonstrators during a protest against Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in Tunis last Friday, January 14. The photographer that took this picture, Lucas Dolega, was later struck in the head by a tear gas canister fired by police and subsequently died of his injuries.


Population 10.6 million

Unemployment14 per cent

Gross National Income (GNI) per capita $9,500

On December 17, 26-year-old Tunisian vegetable trader Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest after police seized his grocery cart. He died on January 4 and the Arab world has been on edge since. Bouazizi's death spawned larger and larger protests in Tunisia until President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali fled the growing violence and fled to Saudi Arabia on the night of January 14.

A volatile mix of poverty, repression, corruption, youth unemployment and rising food prices exploded in Tunisia to the surprise of most of the world. On Wednesday, Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the 22-member Arab League, voiced alarm. Speaking at an Arab economic summit in the Egyptian city of Sharm El Sheikh, he said Tunisia had served as a warning to the region and that the "Arab soul" has been broken by poverty, unemployment and declining living conditions. "The Arab citizen is in an unprecedented state of anger and frustration," he said. Here is a sampling of how the uprising is being viewed across the region.


Population: 6.4 million

Unemployment: 30 per cent

GNI per capita: $13,800

In a televised address, Libyan leader Moammar Qadafi identified the "evil" organisation he blamed for unleashing a plot against public order and Arab self rule in Tunisia: WikiLeaks. Picking up on the conspiracy theory put forward by Iran's leadership, which holds that the leaked US diplomatic cables were released by the CIA to undermine anti-colonialist governments, Mr Qadafi warned about the dark designs of "WikiLeaks which publishes information written by lying ambassadors in order to create chaos". As some American bloggers have pointed out, WikiLeaks did indeed release cables describing the corruption of Mr Ben Ali's regime, but there appears to be no evidence that the unemployed Tunisian vegetable-seller who set himself on fire had even heard of WikiLeaks.

Mr Qadafi also did his best to hype the battle for control of Tunisia being waged by different arms of the deposed president's extensive security state - which has apparently claimed the life of Pasha, the pet tiger of Mr Ben Ali's son-in-law, whose diet was described in one leaked cable. "Tunisia now lives in fear," Mr Qadafi said. "Families could be raided and slaughtered in their bedrooms and the citizens in the street killed as if it was the Bolshevik or the American revolution." Reuters


Population 80.5 million

Unemployment 9.7 per cent

GNI per capita $7,400

Three people in Algeria attempted suicide by fire Wednesday, bringing the total number of such actions to eight in a week, in a replica of protests that ousted the president of neighboring Tunisia. Afif Hadri, a 37-year-old father of six, poured petrol over himself in the main market of El Oued in the east of the country, near the Tunisian border, but people around him stopped him setting himself alight, local journalists said. Hadri, a small-time food seller on the market, acted after an argument with a policeman who said he was trading illegally.

Earlier a woman in her fifties soaked herself with an inflammable product and tried to set herself on fire when a local official convinced her to stop, El Watan daily said, adding that she wounded only her hand as a result. She was protesting in front of the town hall in Sidi Ali Benyoub, southwest of Algiers, after being denied housing aid, the newspaper added. A similar case in Tunisia a month ago sparked widespread demonstrations after the victim died, leading to the ouster of President Ben Ali. Mounting public grievances over unemployment and rising costs also sparked protests in Algeria earlier this month which left five people dead and more than 800 injured.

Algeria's state grains agency has purchased around 1 million tonnes of wheat in the past two months to avoid shortages in case of unrest, a source from the ministry of agriculture told Reuters. To calm the situation, Algeria has decided to cut the cost of some foodstuffs and to increase by 18 per cent the amount of soft wheat it supplies to the local market each month. Reuters


Population: 80.5 million

Unemployment: 9.7 per cent

GNI per capita: $6,200

The suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi was tragically echoed in Egypt this week. On Tuesday, the lawyer Mohamed Farouk Hassan shouted slogans against rising prices before setting himself alight and a second man tried to follow suit. A day earlier, another Egyptian poured gasoline over himself and lit it in a protest against poor living conditions. A Facebook group organising a nationwide demonstration next week against poverty, corruption and employment gathered more than 25,000 members in less than 24 hours and the number has now grown to nearly 50,000 in three days. Meanwhile, the opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei said that regime change in Egypt was "inevitable" after Tunisia. "Change must come," he told the Austrian news agency APA. Mr ElBaradei said he was setting his hopes on the 60 per cent of Egyptians who were younger than 30, "who have no hopes and no future, but above all no ulterior motives".

Gamal Mubarak, who many believe will succeed his father Hosni as president, said last month in a national broadcast speech that the need to raise the standard of living of Egyptians "will remain and continue to be our main preoccupation and the pivotal part" of the efforts of the ruling National Democratic Party. Agence France-Presse

West Bank

Population 2.5 million

Unemployment: 16.5 per cent

GNI per capita: $2,900

Gaza Strip

Population: 1.6 million

Unemployment: 40 per cent

GNI per capita: N/A

The Palestinian leadership has struggled to allay concerns about the sort of improprieties that prompted Tunisians to oust their president.

Ahmad al Mughanni, attorney general for the Palestinian Authority (PA), announced a corruption investigation this week that has implicated some 80 senior Palestinian officials, the news agency Maan reported.

Many Palestinians in the West Bank view their leaders as corrupt and believe they remain in power only with the financial and military aid of foreign powers. Also, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas rules by decree, and local elections have been postponed indefinitely. Local elections have been postponed indefinitelyresident, Mahmoud Abbas, rules by decree while local elections have been postponed indefinitely, reportedly at the request of neighbouring countries and other outside powers.

This week, several factions of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) threatened protests if the government did not hold allow voting to go forwward. Still, the PLO issued a statement praising Tunisians for their "courage" and "heroism" but almost immediately, a PLO adviser said the statement was not the group's official stance.

The incident illustrates the predicament facing West Bank officials. They are no longer part of a revolutionary movement yet they do not administer an independent Palestinian state. They struggle to keep Palestinians happy and to maintain their posts while Israel continues to occupy the West Bank.

In Gaza, Hamas characterised the uprising as the victory over a corrupt, dictatorial regime that had declared war on Islam and was supported by the West. Hugh Naylor


Population: 77.8 million

Unemployment: 12.4 per cent

GNI per capita: $12,300

Turkey's leaders this week highlighted the links between the unrest in Tunisia and the lack of political freedoms in the country. "I do not think those events only resulted from unemployment," Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, said about the riots. "I think there were many other things as well, especially on the issue of rights and freedoms.

Ahmet Davutoglu, Mr Erdogan's foreign minister, was even more outspoken about democratic deficits in Tunisia. "If a person is in power in his country for 25 years, he cannot find anybody to share the blame for mistakes with," Mr Davutoglu told reporters in Baghdad last weekend. "In the end, if a problem arises, things go as far as regime change." However the opposition in Ankara said that Tunisia offers some important lessons to Mr Erdogan himself. The prime minister, whose party has ruled Turkey since 2002 and who is accused of trying to consolidate power, faces parliamentary elections on June 12. Mr Erdogan was the target of recent hostile student protests, which were suppressed by the police by what critics called disproportionate force. The prime minister also faces criticism because of the unsolved Kurdish conflict. Thomas Seibert


Population: 22.2 million

Unemployment: 8.3 per cent

GNI per capita: $4,800

Syrians watching state-run television could have been forgiven for thinking Tunisia's president had gone on holiday rather than been driven from office. When the cartoons and music videos were finally interrupted by news, the presenter said the Tunisian prime minister was now running the government and that Mr Ben Ali had "left the country". By then, most viewers had already switched to the Arab world's satellite channels.

"We were all watching with wide open eyes, to see an Arab leader forced from power by the people," said one Syrian. "I'm happy. It will put other leaders on notice that they cannot just keep pushing down." However, he and others quickly dismissed the possibility of Damascus becoming a second Tunis. "There is poverty and corruption here, but the situation isn't that bad. Plenty of people still have something to lose," said one civil society activist. President Bashar al Assad also enjoys some genuine popularity, he said. Authorities did appear to respond to Tunisia, however: they accelerated a multi-million dollar anti-poverty fund and increased fuel subsidies. There is another reason for the absence of activist fervour here, as Syria expert Joshua Landis observed : unlike the Tunisian army, which stood aside when faced with the uprising, "the Syrian intelligence and military forces will shoot". Phil Sands


Population: 2.8 million

Unemployment: 2.2 per cent

GNI per capita: $51,700

Kuwait's minister for foreign affairs, Sheikh Mohammed Sabah Al Sabah, gave a taste of how this government feels about the turmoil in Tunisia when he addressed the region's leaders at the Arab economic summit in Sharm El-Sheikh this week. "The Arab world is witnessing an unprecedented political movement," he said. "There are countries disintegrating, people rising up and rights being lost." The minister said that he respected the Tunisians' choice.

The government's opposition said it did, too. "The brave Tuniian people have set a principled example and sent dozens of messages to Arab regimes," said the Islamist lawmaker, Faisal al Muslim. He was later criticised for comparing Tunisia to Kuwait, where police recently used force to disperse a political rally of opposition MPs. "I did not mean for my statements to threaten anyone," Mr al Muslim said. "I refuse to bring the events of Tunisia over to Kuwait." Still, price increases are also a contentious political topic in Kuwait. But unlike Tunisia, the Kuwaiti government can distribute the wealth from its oil sales.

This week, the government announced that every citizen would receive 1,000 Kuwaiti dinars (Dh13,100). It said the gift was ordered by the emir to celebrate three anniversaries next month, including 50 years of independence from Great Britain. James Calderwood


Population: 76.9 million

Unemployment: 13.4 per cent

GNI per capita: $5,300

Iranian officials and the state media have been cautious about Tunisia. A foreign ministry spokesman said last week that "Iran supports the demands of the Muslim nation of Tunisia and underlines that these demands should be realised in an atmosphere of non-violence". The strongest support for the protesters so far has been expressed by 228 members of the Iranian parliament. They released a statement on Wednesday in support of the "Tunisian revolution".

Mr Ben Ali's escape reminds many in Iran of the Shah's hasty departure after months of uprising during the Islamic revolution in 1979. The Tunisian protests are also reminiscent of the post-election protests in Tehran and other Iranian cities in 2009. Some of Iran's opposition websites have pointed out the similarities and differences between the uprising in Tunisia and Iran's opposition Green Movement. "The movement of the Tunisians is a movement aimed at changing the visible structure of power while the Green Movement thinks of creating fundamental changes in tyrannical political and social structures," said Jaras, an opposition website. Maryam Sinaiee


Population: 2.9 million

Unemployment: 15 per cent

GNI per capita: $25,800

Coverage of the upheaval in Tunisia by state-run news organisations in Oman was low-key, but about 200 people took to the streets in the civil ministries district in Muscat on Monday to demand an an end to corruption and a curb on rising food prices. The demonstrators, mostly young and unemployed people, chanted "End corruption!" and "Food is expensive" while police looked on but did not interfere. The protests were not covered in the local media. It was the first protest since 2003, when students of a university in the capital chanted the name of Osama bin Laden on their campus to protest the influence of the United States on Arab and Islamic states. While Oman and Tunisia are markedly different in many ways, they hold some things in common - namely, rising food prices, youth unemployment and corruption. Inflation in Oman has been steadily rising at about 4 per cent a year since 2007, and local labour experts estimate that only 60 per cent of school graduates find employment. And in a rare move, a government worker was earlier this week to 10 years in prison after he embezzled one million rials (Dh.9.5m). Saleh Al Shaibany


Population: 23.5 million

Unemployment: 35 per cent

GNI per capita: $2,600

Yemini protesters gathered at the campus of Sana'a University campus for four consecutive days this week to hail Tunisian "people power" and urge the ouster of Arab leaders. Initially, police allowed the demonstrators to reach Tunisia's embassy in the capital. But later in the week, when they started to demand that President Ali Abdullah Saleh step down and for corrupt officials to quit, the police cordoned them on campus and fired live bullets into the air to disperse them.

The social networking site Facebook was an especially vibrant forum for discussion about Tunisia. Yemeni users posted Tunisian flags as profile photos and put up images of the Sana'a protests, captioning them the "Sana'a revolution" and the "Students revolution." They also speculated which Arab leaders would be next to fall, including their own. While the opposition and independent media in Yemen highlighted the ouster of Mr Ben Ali and the corruption of his family, the state media opted for other angles. Al-Thawra, the biggest state daily, focused on the unrest and looting in Tunis and even continued after Mr Ben Ali's departure to call him "president". Meanwhile, political opposition urged Mr Saleh's government to take a lesson from the Tunisia uprising and address Yemeni problems, which they said were worse than Tunisia's. Mohammed al Qadhi

Saudi Arabia

Population: 25.7 million

Unemployment: 10.8 per cent

GNI per capita: $24,800

Mohammad Al Qahtani sums up the feeling among many Saudis about the revolt that sent Tunisia's president into exile in Jeddah. "The popular revolution, which is unexpected in the Middle East, gives people inspiration that they could do the same," said Mr Qahtani, an economics professor and human-rights activist in Riyadh. "I don't know where this emotion is going to lead, but it gives people hope."

Few Saudis wish for a similar scenario in their own country, where political and economic conditions are very different than those that sparked Tunisia's uprising. But many Saudis have joined their voices to the pan-Arab choir that is trilling the same song from Muscat to Morocco: Arab leaders must take Tunisia as a vital warning about their own behavior.

"It's like a warning to them to be more realistic and more wise," said political observer Abdullah Al Shammary. For many Arabs, he added, Mr Ben Ali "represents all Arabic leaders who misgovern and misbehave. So, it's like a real warning." In his weekly column in Asharq al Awsat, Hussein Shobokshi wrote: "I firmly believe that the slogan of the current era is 'Tunisiation'. This scenario will be repeated unless we take notice, and fully comprehend what happened in Tunisia." The happiness that Saudis said they felt for the Tunisian people was marred somewhat by the news that Mr Ben Ali was given refuge in the kingdom. Caryle Murphy


Population: 29.7 million

Unemployment: 15.3 per cent

GNI per capita: $3,600

After their own experience of having a dictator overthrown, many Iraqis are watching the Tunisian uprising with a mixture of pride, hope, and perhaps even a tinge of envy. Iraqis insist Mr Ben Ali was nothing but a toy compared to Saddam Hussein. "If you thought about saying a word against Saddam, you would be killed with your parents, children and cousins," said one, explaining why it had taken the US military to do the job rather than a homegrown revolution.

"We expect the Tunisian people have a better post-dictatorship experience than we did," said Amhed al Taee, an Iraqi political analyst. "Their change came by their own hands so we hope they will quickly have some stability and a good democratic government, not the chaos and war we had." Discontent remains widespread in Iraq. Corruption and poverty are common, and economic divisions are widening. Thus, the government has taken more than a small note of Tunisia. Plans to impose high import taxes on food and other basic goods have been shelved. Nizar Latif


Population: 6.4 million

Unemployment: 13.4 per cent

GNI per capita: $5,300

In Jordan, the protests in Tunisia were felt widely among a population that has seen its living conditions erode and where more than 13 per cent earn less than $US960 a year. "People are inspired with what happened in Tunisia and they are not only calling on the government to step down and be replaced by a similar prime minister. They want real reforms," said Maysara Malas, a trade union activist.

Jordan's Islamist-led opposition has been outspoken, too. Hamam Saeed, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, said the downfall of Mr Ben Ali serves "as an example for all the tyrants in the Arab and Islamic world."

Still, while there is considerable public resentment of the government's political and economic policies and protests are expected to continue, measures have been taken to soften the impact of rising costs by slashing prices of fuel and some commodities. Suha Ma'ayeh