The recent riots in Tunisia and Algeria are not all of a piece as portrayed by Western and Arab media. Troubles against the Algiers regime are routine in a country that has been embroiled since 1982 in an internal struggle between the regime and radical Islamic groups. Riots there have become a regular feature of the political landscape.
The situation in Tunisia is quite different: Anti-regime protests there are unusual because of the harsh policy of oppression pursued by President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in his 23 years in power.
Their increasing violence – some witnesses report more than 120 killed – have led North African and Western agencies monitoring events in Tunis to start a countdown to a widespread civil rebellion against Ben Ali and his regime. This may or may not be premature, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources say.
The riots that erupted three weeks ago primarily reflect the deep frustrations of young university graduates facing a future without suitable jobs and have not so far been politically motivated. They first flared outside the capital in the town of Sidi Bouzid, 200 kilometers southeast of Tunis, after Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old Tunisian, committed suicide because he was forced to support his family by selling fruit and vegetables from a street stall despite his university degree. When the authorities denied him a license for his stand and repeatedly harassed him, he set himself on fire.
Bouazizi became a symbol of the frustration of young people like himself in Sidi Bouzid.
Ben Ali's regime survived by boosting standards of living
They took to the streets and clashed with the security forces, demanding better economic conditions and more employment opportunities for graduates. The riots spread to other outlying cities where they raged for three weeks before reaching the capital Thursday, Jan. 13.
President Ben Ali's first response was an iron fist against the rioters, whom he described as "masked gangs attacking government buildings." Security forces were then reported by eyewitnesses to have been widely spread out in major cities and conducting mass arrests to suppress the disturbances. But in fact they proved unready and hesitated to crack down on the protesters.
At the same time, the president promised to create many more jobs and economic improvements.
According to official data, unemployment in Tunisia stands at 14 percent, but the real figure is closer to 25 percent.
The young protesters' average social profile is significant:
Most are scions of Tunisia's large middle class which up until now supported Ben Ali, although not too happy about his regime's civil conduct. During his first two decades in power, he managed to award this class a rising standard of living. Today, it faces hard times.
The riots revealed a breakdown in the informal pact which grounded his presidency in an unwritten understanding: the regime was committed to provide political stability and economic prosperity in return for which the population was willing to sacrifice certain personal liberties.
But the most immediate threat to the regime has come from the cracks showing up in the security and intelligence agencies and the armed forces command. The disturbances caught them all by surprise and unready.
Ben Ali's family leaves country as disturbances edge into capital
In recent years, Tunisia like other countries has found it increasingly difficult to meet the needs of educated young people for jobs and economic advantages. The regime has responded with more oppression, stamping hard on the slightest criticism. The reported corruption spreading among government officials and the president's associates has further intensified public bitterness.
It is too soon to predict how far Ben Ali can succeed in suppressing the disturbances, reclaiming public trust and restoring stability. He is heavily dependent on the army's loyalty and competence. In the past, the Tunisian president has proved he can be both tough and also attentive to popular grievances. Indeed, he suddenly ordered the release of all the demonstrators rounded up in the first three weeks of disturbances.
However, to re-stabilize the economy and meet the population's demands, he must promote foreign investments, a goal almost impossible with much of the world sunk in economic recession.
Ben Ali's primary asset is the lack of plausible alternatives to his government. The opposition parties are weak and divided and even the Islamic movement surging through parts of North Africa is fragmented and vitiated in Tunisia by years of official persecution.
However, the riots have had the interesting side-effect of awakening non-government organizations, such as trade unions, which have responded to the protest rallies and re-established a presence in public life after years of stagnation.
These NGOs may eventually offer Tunisia salvation by helping to develop a new political model for the country – with or without Ben Ali. For now, as the disturbances edge into the capital and the crisis gains momentum, the president's relatives have quietly begun leaving the country.