The Tunisian Riots and the Risk of a Domino Effect

AP Photo/Christopher Ena
By Silvia Colombo

Although the limelight seems to be gradually dimming over Tunisia, the true meaning of the Jasmine Revolution still appears to be questioning our understanding of the apparent stability enjoyed by many North African countries. This ultimately shows the short-sightedness of the policies of European partners that have for long regarded these countries almost exclusively in terms of the help they could offer in curbing Islamism and illegal migration without paying due attention to other problems and challenges blossoming in the shade.

Owing to its macroeconomic performance, Tunisia projected for decades an image of stability to the world and distinguished itself from other Arab countries for its progress in the areas of economic growth, health, education and women’s rights. However, this substantial progress has been achieved at the cost of deep political repression. Since his accession to power in 1987 Zine el Abidine Ben Ali had built around him one of the most authoritarian and repressive systems of power in the region, one in which civil and political rights were repressed and any form of dissent, even in the Parliament, was not tolerated. This degeneration could sustain itself thanks to the ability of the state to guarantee an adequate level of social rights and thanks to the active and almost unconditional support of the EU and other external actors, all of whom favoured the former president’s pursuit of neo-liberal economic liberalisation, as well as his cooperation in securing other EU objectives, notably the fight against terrorism and illegal migration. However, this apparent stability was shattered on 14 January, when President Ben Ali fled the country after capitulating to protesters demanding, through all possible means, the end of corruption and oppression and the opening of avenues for political participation.

However, the root causes of the unrest were socio-economic as much as they were political. Economic growth reached 3,7 per cent in 2010 and is projected to attain 5,4 per cent in 2011, but this has not translated into substantial developments in the creation of new jobs for the young Tunisian population. On the contrary, mainly due to the inner dysfunctions of the Tunisian labour market and the economy overall, youth unemployment and growing regional disparities have become catalysts of civil unrest. On the one hand, unemployment, particularly among graduates, has continued to increase since 2006 (to 18,2 per cent in 2007 and 21,9 per cent in 2009), while job creation has slowed down (from 80,000 jobs created in 2007 to only 57,000 in 2009). On the other, the Tunisian economy suffers from a damaging dependence on the European markets. The global financial crisis has revealed the unsustainability of this dependence in times of contraction of the demand, and some regions in Tunisia have been excluded from the access to capital and investments. It is not by chance that riots started in Sidi Bouzid, in the central region, and only at a later stage have spread to the capital.

Tunisia has a highly-educated young population, which makes it stand out in comparison to other countries in the region, such as Egypt or Morocco. The number of graduates that are looking for jobs against the total number of the unemployed has grown from 20 to 55 per cent in less than ten years. They are the sons and daughters of the secular middle-class that was built over decades by the former President Habib Bourghiba. The unemployed represent the bulk of the protesters who took to the streets in Tunis and other cities demanding the end of Ben Ali’s regime. Another sign of the secular character of the protest is represented by the almost total absence of the Tunisian Islamist opposition that had been fought for 23 years as the worst evil by the regime of Ben Ali with the complicity of its western supporters. What will most likely go down in history as the “Jasmine Revolution” was a secular revolution against a despotic political regime that had for too long kept the Tunisian society a hostage of the worst forms of lack of freedom, pluralism, democracy and human rights.

Although many in the West were shocked by the events in Tunisia, some voices had already risen among analysts and commentators warning against a potentially unstable situation, in Tunisia and elsewhere, in which an unsustainable status quo tips towards political and social instability. For example, in 2009 Claire Spencer wrote in her report North Africa, The Hidden Risks to Regional Stability: “External interest in North Africa tends to highlight the more violent manifestations of insecurity in the region, whether these are related to terrorism, drugs- and arms-smuggling or clashes between police and would-be migrants seeking entry to Europe. This perspective often fails to identify the less visible but nonetheless mounting instability within each state. The real security threats are not so much transnational as local and human. Symptomatic of this are the growing social and economic divisions engendered by endemic unemployment and corruption, and the widespread disengagement from electoral politics that achieve more international approval than representation of their citizens”. However, this and similar analyses have not changed the foreign policy of the European states, in particular France and Italy, towards Tunisia. These countries have continued to lend support to Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime by sidelining democratic conditionality, thus sowing the seeds of further instability in the region.

The recent dramatic events in Egypt, although moving from different premises compared to the Tunisian case, similarly highlights how a social contract based on political repression and lack of participation contains the seeds of its own demise. Socioeconomic problems require, above all, credible and sustainable political solutions. Hence, unless far-reaching and genuine – not cosmetic – political reforms are implemented, political and social stability cannot be taken for granted against the backdrop of the increased deterioration of socioeconomic conditions throughout the region. Political repression, coupled with the worsening of living conditions, tends to increase people’s alienation, resentment and frustration, particularly among the youth and the educated. The case of Tunisia, and possibly of Egypt, would require contemporary Arab regimes and external actors to factor this increasingly evident reality into their policies. This would, in other words, call for a radical rethinking of EU policies towards the region.


Silvia Colombo is a Junior Researcher and specialist in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern affairs at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) in Rome. 


31 January 2011


Photo Credit: AP Photo/Christopher Ena