For years the Tunisian government has boasted of the country’s progress on behalf of women’s rights. Indeed, with legal rights to equal education and work, divorce, and voting rights, women in Tunisia enjoy relatively greater status than in other parts of North Africa or the Middle East.
But what does the right to education mean when good jobs are practically nonexistent? For the 80,000 young women and men who graduate every year from Tunisia’s universities, the recent death of Mohammed Bouazizi has brought this question home with painful urgency.
It was no doubt the question hanging in the air for the 5,000 people who attended the public funeral this week for Bouazizi, a young unemployed graduate who in despair set himself afire on December 17. Bouazizi’s desperate act occurred after police shut down his unofficial produce stand in the city of Sidi Bouzid. Mistreated by police in the incident, the stand had been his only source of income.
In a country often touted by western economists as a jewel of North African “prosperity,” thorny questions about lack of jobs have a way of quickly becoming seditious. It’s not hard to understand why. Officially, unemployment stands at 14.7 percent of the workforce. That’s a damning figure in itself. But among college graduates the situation is even worse. University of Northhampton lecturer Nourelddine Miladi told Al-Jazzerra’s “Inside Story” that currently about 25 percent of male graduates and 44 percent of female graduates cannot find work (Jan. 2). The protests now unfolding represent “the accumulation of decades of marginalization of not only graduates, but other young people in the country,” says Miladi.
According to a 2008 World Bank report, more than 38 percent of Tunisia’s recent graduates have been unable to find work in recent years. A Gulf News report notes that it is not uncommon for graduates to take six or seven years to find a job (Jan. 1). Yet the World Bank still claims Tunisia’s “development model” of the past 20 years has “served the country well.”
By “country” the World Bank must mean President Ben Ali and his in-laws. Under the policy rubric of the International Monetary Fund’s vision for Tunisia, it’s hardly coincidental that the president’s extended family has personally grown super wealthy. “Whether it’s cash, services, land, property, or yes, even your yacht, President Ben Ali’s family is rumored to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants,” reveals a 2008 U.S. embassy cable made public by Wikileaks. In fact, Ben Ali may have funneled as much as $5 billion into foreign bank accounts, reports University of Denver international studies lecturer Rob Prince on the Tunisian news blog NAWATT. Meanwhile, the rest of Tunisian society faces a gradual dismantling of the nation’s economy from trade restrictions, public sector subsidies, and other regulatory controls.
The results are an “economic miracle” for the elite, but increasing deprivation for the unlucky majority who fall outside the top 20 percent of the population that claims nearly half the nation’s total income. The bottom 20 percent gets less than 6 percent of total income.
As an ally of the United States, the Tunisian government has enjoyed the long-standing willingness of the American government to look the other way at corruption and human rights abuses. Writing in 2009 on the Carnegie Middle East Center website, Tunisian rights activist Lutfi Hajji notes that the Tunisian government has used the threat of Islamic radicalism and its ability to squash it as a quid pro quo with the West. Accordingly, anti-terrorism and money-laundering legislation passed by the Tunisian parliament in 2003 meant prison sentences for hundreds of young people, says Hajji. “As a result, the United States and Europe overlooked many of the regime’s human rights violations, including the persecution and torture of activists, the refusal to recognize parties and associations, and the regime’s monopoly over media.”
Now a singular act of desperation by a young man has become the catalyst for an explosion of long simmering dissent. Under the government’s tight control of media and politics, such spontaneous public anger can quickly spiral beyond the government’s ability to contain it, as the people suddenly taste their own social power. This is exactly what is now happening, as tens of thousands pour into the streets in cities and towns throughout the nation. This includes organized strike actions by lawyers and teachers, as well as expressions of solidarity with the demonstrators from the normally pro-government Tunisian General Union of Labour.
So far neither tear gas nor police bullets, targeted arrests of prominent bloggers and other regime critics, reshuffled government ministries nor promises of new money for jobs have stopped the Tunisian people’s ardor for the streets. No doubt nervousness is being felt in government corridors throughout the region, for which country among them is not also characterized by corruption, unemployment, and lack of democracy. Already street protests over unemployment and high prices have spread to neighboring Algeria.
The celebratory rhetoric in the West for Tunisia’s “economic miracle” is now proving to be as porous as the sands of the Sahara. In the end Tunisian-style “free-market” capitalism can boast of only a tainted brand of economic growth, bought at the price of social equality and democracy and serving royally a corrupt elite. Tellingly, the latter have proven more than willing to redirect whatever profits and wealth they don’t claim as their own toward the foreign investors who come calling under the name of the European Union.
The people of Tunisia apparently now have much to say about all this. We should all be listening.