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By: Lamis Andoni*)
Mohamed Bou’aziz, the young Tunisian who set fire to himself on December 17, is emerging as a symbol of the wider plight of the millions of young Arabs who are struggling to improve their living conditions.
Like many across the Arab world, Bou’aziz, who is now being treated for severe burns, discovered that a university degree was insufficient to secure decent employment. He turned to selling fruit for a living, but when the security forces confiscated his vending cart he torched himself – igniting a series of protests across Tunisia.
The roots of this Tunisian ‘uprising’ are to be found in a lethal combination of poverty, unemployment and political repression: three characteristics of most Arab societies.
Corruption, nepotism and inefficiency
Official figures place unemployment in the Arab world at 15 per cent but many economists believe the real rate is far higher than government supplied statistics suggest.
A joint study by the Arab League and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) indicates that in most Arab countries young people constitute 50 per cent of the unemployed – the highest rate in the world.
According to the same report, rates of poverty remain high – “reaching up to 40 per cent on average, which means that nearly 140 million Arabs continue to live under the upper poverty line”. Worse still, the study noted that the region has seen no decrease in rates of poverty in the past 20 years.
The report was submitted to the Arab summit that convened in Kuwait in 2009, but found no real response from Arab officials – who continued to pursue economic policies that had, in their main outlines, been imposed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF).
In most Arab countries, rampant corruption, nepotism and inefficiency have further aggravated the impact of IMF-inspired privatisation processes, austerity measures and the reduction or scrapping of government subsidies on fuel and staple foodstuffs.
Bread and couscous
It was, in fact, Tunisians who first rejected the then newly introduced IMF guidelines by protesting against resulting food shortages in January 1984. But the government of Habib Bourguiba, the then Tunisian president, cracked down on the bread riots, as they were called, and imposed nightly curfews to curb the protests.
But the Tunisian protests did not stop other governments from following suit and endorsing the ‘economic liberalisation programme’ dictated by the IMF and World Bank. In October 1988, violent protests swept Algeria as liberalisation policies were introduced. The ‘couscous protests’, as they became known, were led by young people who emulated the ongoing Palestinian intifada against Israeli occupation by donning the Palestinian keffeya, burning tires and throwing stones at security forces.
The subsequent security crackdown resulted in the deaths of hundreds and the imprisonment of more than 1,000 people – serving to silence critics and pave the way for more governments to adopt IMF proposed austerity measures.
Less than a year later, Jordan reached an agreement with the IMF that involved decreasing government subsidies. This triggered hikes in fuel prices and resulted in protests in the southern cities of Ma’an and Karak. The government, like those of other Arab countries, responded by sending in the security forces to round up activists and protest leaders.
But the outcry, having shaken the bedrock of Hashemite support in the south of the country, prompted the late King Hussein to restore elections, lift three-decades old martial law and allow the existence of political parties in order to appease the opposition and to contain the growing anger.
The king’s response was a success – particularly as parliamentary elections were held and political prisoners released. His subsequent refusal to join US-led coalition forces in the battle to free Kuwait and in the bombing of Iraq, a stance that corresponded with popular sentiment, also helped to ease the tensions that had arisen from his economic policies. Thus consecutive governments continued to ‘liberalise the economy’ – resulting in higher inflation rates and price hikes.
A prelude to political liberalism?
The US administrations of both George Bush senior, a Republican, and Bill Clinton, a Democrat, asserted pressure on Arab governments to pursue the ‘neo-liberal economic model’ promoted by American economist Milton Friedman.
Neo-liberalism marked a sharp retreat from the Keynesian model of government intervention through welfare policies to ensure some degree of social equilibrium within capitalist societies. With the collapse of the former Communist bloc, the promoters of neo-liberal economics sought to associate a free economy with a more politically free society.
During the 1990s, neo-liberal economics became more entrenched in Arab societies – producing a new elite of wealthy young capitalist entrepreneurs and prompting envy and discontent among the established elite who too rushed to join the new game.
Even many former leftist intellectuals, in the Arab world and beyond, espoused the new school of thought as a prelude to a politically liberal society – thus dampening opposition to economic policies that were increasing poverty and unemployment.
But political freedoms did not go hand-in-hand with economic liberalisation. In fact, in most Arab countries the governments asserted more control, while taking measures to undercut dissent and opposition.
In 1996, protests again erupted in the south of Jordan in response to increases in bread prices. The government responded with a security crackdown – but this time no widening political freedoms followed.
Crying out against injustice
It was not until the global economic crisis that the Arab world started to witness the recovery of popular opposition – first materialising in Egypt in 2007 and 2008. These strikes and protests were the first indications of a return to organised protests against political repression and poverty inducing economic policies.
These movements, ultimately unsuccessfully, brought students and workers together to challenge the apathy and disdain of the ruling elite to the suffering of the poor and marginalised. The political movement for change, led by Mohamed ElBaradei, to establish a democratic and participatory political system, reflected the merger of the discontented sectors of Egyptian society.
But it was Bou’aziz’s heart-wrenching attempt to kill himself that most accurately represented the loud cry of the millions of impoverished and aching citizens against the yoke of politically and economically repressive systems. His act was one of extreme despair. But he is not alone. Lahseen Naji, another young Tunisian, followed – electrocuting himself to death – and at least five others attempted to commit suicide but were stopped.
In Jordan and some other Arab countries, frustration borne out of political and economic disenfranchisement has manifested itself in a higher rate of societal violence, especially among the young. The absence of strong political parties and movements are strengthening tribal rivalries among younger generations, often leading to armed clashes.
But Jordanian society has also witnessed this frustration being turned into affirmative action in the form of workers’ and teachers’ demands for improved working conditions. Jordan’s teachers have emerged as an important force within the country, resisting government attempts to marginalise them and pushing their demand for the formation of a syndicate to protect their interests.
As the Tunisian protests continued, demonstrations took place in Algeria against a housing programme that failed to accommodate the thousands of families made homeless by the country’s devastating 2003 earthquake.
Bou’aziz’s wounds and Naji’s death should not go down in history as mere tragic incidents: if the Tunisian protests do indeed signal the return of social movements to the Arab world, their stifled hopes may just be turned into an outcry against injustice.
*) Lamis Andoni is an analyst and commentator on Middle Eastern and Palestinian affairs.