On Friday, Tunisia imposed a nationwide curfew to cope with increasingly violent demonstrations. As with the so-called “Arab Spring” five years ago, the unrest was triggered by an unemployed youth killing himself.
The event that triggered the Arab Spring is widely held to have been the 2011 suicide of Mohamed Bouaziz, a 26-year-old who was trying to support his mother and six siblings by selling fruits and vegetables in a rural Tunisian village. The police challenged him for selling his goods without a permit, and humiliated him in public, supposedly by a female police officer slapping him. Bouaziz set himself on fire in front of the local governor’s office, after the governor refused to grant him a hearing.
He became a figurehead for public discontent with the regime of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who protesters ultimately drove out of power (and out of Tunisia) after almost 25 years of rule.
The Arab Spring was supposed to be a great flowering of democracy across the Middle East, a grassroots rejection of authoritarianism, but as media outlets such as the Washington Post, Reuters, and CBS News mournfully observed this week, Tunisia was the only real “success story” from the Arab Spring… and five years on, even Tunisia is not looking good.
Unemployment in Tunisia is around 15 percent on average, but double that for young people. CBS reports attacks on public and private property denounced as “a danger to the country and its citizens” by the Interior Ministry, including “roving groups of young people” who “pillaged a bank and looted stores and warehouses” on the outskirts of the capital city of Tunis.
The Washington Post adds that Friday saw protesters attacking police stations with stones and Molotov cocktails, prompting security officers to deploy tear gas.
Protesters have denounced the Tunisian government for failing to deliver on the Arab Spring promise. Reuters notes complaints about old regime officials returning to power, and inland Tunisians complaining about excessive resources poured into the coastal tourist regions.
Another of Tunisia’s woes is the surge of ISIS-linked terrorist attacks, including the June massacre at the beach resort of Sousse, in which a number of foreign tourists were killed by an Islamic State gunman. The damage to Tunisia’s tourist industry is seen as one component of its economic downturn.
Reuters observes that one-third of jobless Tunisians are university graduates, and Islamist militants have been distressingly successful at recruiting from even the middle-class and educated segment of Tunisian society, with an estimated 3,000 Tunisians fighting for militant groups in Iraq and Syria.
“Are we not Tunisians too? It’s been four years I’ve been struggling. We’re not asking for much, but we’re fighting for our youth. We’ve struggled so much for them,” the mother of an unemployed graduate told the Washington Post from Kasserine, which has been a focal point for the unrest.
It was in Kasserine that 28-year-old university graduate Ridha Yahyaoui climbed up a power pole near the governor’s office last Saturday, to protest the government refusing to give him a job, and was electrocuted. The similarity to the death of Mohamed Bouazizi five years ago was not lost on protesters.
Reuters reports that more frustrated young men have threatened to kill themselves in Kasserine, including two who were “injured after trying to throw themselves off the roof of the local government building in fits of anger over the lack of jobs.”
Tunisian human rights activist Rzouga Selmi told International Business Times there was much apprehension in Tunisia about the civil unrest, saying “a lot of people are afraid to see the country turn out like Libya or Syria, particularly as the Islamic State in Libya is just over the border.”
Selmi cited anger over “increasing police brutality and draconian penal laws which impinged upon human rights,” in addition to unemployment, as reasons for the anger on Tunisia’s streets. He did not, however, think the situation would escalate into a revolution comparable to the events of 2011, in part because there are fears groups like ISIS could easily exploit such chaos.