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North Africa's disenfranchised youth break their silence

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2011-01-06

The suicide of a young Tunisian university graduate in protest at rising unemployment has set off a wave of unrest and resonated with a generation of North African youth who see no opportunity to better their lives.

Tunisia is experiencing its third week of unrest touched off by the suicide of an unemployed youth, Mohamed Bouzizi, whose dramatic end has come to embody the frustration and anger shared by youth across North Africa.

The 26-year-old university graduate died Tuesday from burn wounds after dousing himself in petrol and setting himself ablaze on December 17. The act of despair reportedly came after police confiscated the fruits and vegetables he sold without a permit.

“The self-immolation reflects the deep anguish felt by North African youth,” said Pierre Vermeren, a regional expert who teaches at the Sorbonne University in Paris. “The youth are part of an economic situation they don’t understand, and they feel like they don’t have control over their future.”

Clashes with police erupted in the country following the youth’s extreme act of protest, leaving three people dead, several wounded and cars and buildings set ablaze. People attending Bouazizi’s funeral on Wednesday blamed the government for the young man’s death and vowed revenge.

On the same day in neighbouring Algeria, dozens of youths burned cars and businesses and clashed with police in a poor district of the capital. The riots reportedly broke out in protest at soaring food prices, and were only the latest in a series of sporadic but recurrent protests in several key Algerian cities.

Few jobs, high prices

“It’s evident there is a trend of contagion,” said Burhan Ghalioun, Director of the Centre for Contemporary Oriental Studies at the Sorbonne.

The unrest Tunisians have witnessed is rare. The government, which is routinely criticised for its human rights record, has been effective at silencing any opposition. But the suicide of Bouazizi has resonated with the population, who like in Algeria, complain of the rising price of basic food items and the lack of jobs.

Unemployment stands at around 14 percent in Tunisia, but is much higher outside the capital and beachside tourist zones; in regions like Sidi Bouzid in the centre-west, where Bouazizi took his life. The many university-educated youths who cannot find jobs are particularly frustrated.

Similar spaces

According to Vermeren, the mostly blue-collar based economies of Algeria and Tunisia offer few and unappealing prospects to the growing number of university graduates. The recent protests, Vermeren said, are prompted by the youths’ sense of despair, but are also inspired by trends elsewhere.

Ghalioun agreed about the shared regional malaise: “These populations live in geographic proximity, but also inhabit similar political, psychological and economic spaces. They see what is happening, understand that something needs to be done and join in.”

According to Ghalioun, the tightly controlled countries of North Africa have no means other than repression to respond to the current uprisings, and will once again prove what he describes as their unsustainable nature.

“The governing systems in the Maghreb are similar. They exclude, repress and concentrate wealth among a few people,” said Ghalioun. “They will continue to manage these small bursts of opposition, but eventually, they can’t hold.”

The Sorbonne scholar also warns of the radicalisation of social movements like the one launched in Tunisia by students. For Ghalioun, the new protesters lack the utopian impetus or the religious zeal of past generations, but their irrepressible feeling of discontent is just as strong.

Date created : 2011-01-06


    Protester killed in violent clashes with Tunisian police

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