The wave of protests and strikes has swept Tunisia and Algeria in the recent weeks are the biggest for a generation. Khalil Habash looks at the background.

Tunisia protests

The mobilization and the protests in Tunisia over high unemployment and cost of living, in which as many as 20 have been killed since Saturday, have been ongoing since the 17th of December 2010. Protests and social unrest from the people, which started in the city of Sidi Bouzi, have now spread all over the regions of the country.

President Ben Ali’s promise on Television yesterday night to create 300 000 jobs in the next two years will not appease the feeling of anger among the Tunisian population. Demonstrations are organized on almost a daily basis in each city, as well as in rural areas.

Universities and high schools have now been shut by the government until further notice particularly following demonstrations organized by university students in the streets of Tunis and elsewhere the past few days.

The union of lawyers has condemned the violence of the police and went on strike on the 6th of January in support of the protesters, while bloggers and internet users’ critical of the Tunisian regime have been arrested. At a public rally held Saturday in Tunis, the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) has also supported the claims of the people demonstrating as “legitimate”.

Tunisian lawyers protest

Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter have been used widely by thousands of Tunisians in order to call for demonstrations or to spread information such as videos and images of the brutality of the police against the demonstrators, while the national flag covered with blood is becoming the main profile picture on facebook.

We should also remember that at least five other people have also committed suicide, often by self-immolation, as a gesture of protest to denounce their social and economic situation, which the government is held responsible in their opinion. Tunisia has not witnessed such a protest movement since the “bread riots” in 1984 under President Bourguiba, which caused many victims.

The response of Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime has been to condemn these ongoing protests as “terrorist acts” and vowed to deal with those involved. Ben Ali was also quoted saying that the “violent protests were unacceptable and could harm the country’s interests by discouraging investors and tourists who provide a large part of the country’s revenues”, and adding that “the events were the work of masked gangs that attacked at night government buildings and even civilians inside their homes in a terrorist act that cannot be overlooked.”

Police and security forces have since then been trying to repress any kind of resistance by every means available, opening fire on demonstrators causing deaths and serious casualties.

Government officials have until now reported that 14 people were killed since Saturday in clashes between the security forces and protesters in different towns around the country, while local sources as well as the newspaper Le Monde have argued for more than 20 deaths. Opposition political parties have condemned the violent behavior of security forces and called the regime to start a process of democratization.

Ahmed Najib Chebbi, leader of the Democratic Progressive Party, also challenged the official line that the police have been firing in self-defence, asserting that “the demonstrations were non-violent and the youths were claiming their rights to jobs”.

The youth implications in the protest movement have been very important, university students being very often the main organizers of demonstrations in some areas. The high rate of unemployment particularly affects the youth and the new graduates who do not find professional opportunities.

The economic development of Tunisia these past twenty years have benefited firstly coastal areas which are mostly dedicated for tourism activities, real estates and industries, while no serious efforts or programmes have been made to create jobs for young graduates.

We can find also other reasons to the rise of this protest movement such as the lack of democracy, corruption and social inequality. President Ben Ali has been in power since 1987, crushing any kind of opposition to its regime since then. In addition to this, his close family controls much of the financial-industrial conglomerates in the country. On the social and economic level, the richest 10% of the population actually receives one third of the total income, while the 30% poorest must settle for less than 10% of the GDP. The taxation system increases these disparities instead of correcting them. Consumers and employees bear the bulk of the tax while merchants and businesses will largely escape.

Tunisians’ protests have definitely shaken up the Ben Ali regime and have in some ways encouraged its neighbor Algeria which also witnessed people revolting against high unemployment and cost of living, especially in relation to food products such as the price of flour, sugar and cooking oil that have doubled in recent months to levels never reached before. Riots have been ongoing now since last Wednesday in several cities in Algeria causing 5 deaths and around 800 wounded, while more than 1000 people were arrested by security forces.

Angry protests in Algeria

The university in the neighborhood of Bab Ezzouar in Algiers was beside surrounded last week in the beginning of the protest, security forces fearing student’s activities. The Algerian government decided Saturday, January 8th, to temporarily remove some taxes on sugar and cooking oil, hoping to curb rising prices and moreover protests in several cities in Algeria. The current protests share some commonalities with those of October 1988, which would cause the collapse of the single party system lead by the National Liberation Front (FLN).

On October 4, 1988, demonstrations broke out in Algiers to protest against rising prices and widespread scarcity of basic necessities, before spreading to other cities. The army had to restore order at the cost of dozens of dead and hundreds injured, but nevertheless multiparty was finally recognized. Just as in 1988, youth implications in the protests are important and especially from young graduates, who suffer greatly from unemployment.

The European Union and the USA have not been vocal in condemning the repression of the protests movements in Tunisia and Algeria. Catherine Ashton, EU foreign policy chief, only declared that she was “concerned” about the events and called for restraint and the immediate release from detention of those detained after peacefully protesting. Tunisia is actually since May 2010 being in the process to be granted by the Europian Union an “advanced status”, which would include stepping up political dialogue and trade relations. Tunisia, it should be reminded, is already receiving substantial funding under the European Neighborhood Policy of the EU.

Movements of protests in Tunisia and Algeria show the power of the people to react against authoritarian regimes and even change political decisions made by them. These protests are the most important since more than 20 years in both countries and challenge the neo liberal policy advised by the IMF and established by the elites of these regimes. These neo liberal policies impoverished the population as a whole and these protests want to put an end to this.

Protest at Tunisian Embassy this Monday 17 January

Ben Ali protest

Stop Government repression in Tunisia, Solidarity with the uprising

2.30pm, Tunisian Embassy, 29 Princes Gate
London SW7 1QG
Speakers include Jeremy Corbyn and Mohammed Ali.

Solidarity with the Tunisian Uprising – Coalition of Resistance Public Meeting | 20 January


Miriyam Aouragh (Oxford University, author Palestine Online)
Mohamed Ali (Islam Channel, former political prisoner in Tunisia)
Joseph Daher (Counterfire)

Time: 7.30pm
Date: Thursday 20th January
Place: Room 3C, University of London Union, Malet Street, London WC1 (nearest tubes, Euston, Euston Square, Russell Square)

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