January 27, 2011

As Tunisian Protests Spread, Professors Debate Broader Implications

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Mohaed Bouazizi, a desperate and unemployed young Tunisian man, set himself on fire Dec. 17 when officials denied him a permit to sell vegetables on the streets of Sidi Bouzid.

His death caused a widespread protest in the African nation, which has erupted into a political uprising in several countries throughout the Middle East. 78 people have been killed in Tunisia, according to the Tunisian government, although the United Nations put the toll at 100. Tunisia’s president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, fled the country Jan. 14.

There are many factors that pushed the people of Tunisia to rebellion, according to Prof. David Patel, government.

Patel said the country faces a lot of challenges, such as high unemployment. Young people who have gone to college in recent years expect a lifestyle that the current political regime is unable to provide, and the government is also unable to subsidize food and gas to the extent it did before due to the rising prices of limited resources, Patel said.

“[The] authoritarian regime isn’t offering a promise of a better life,” Patel said. “[It has been the] same story since the 70s. They protested, [and] more people joined.”

Although the Middle East is frequently portrayed as a hot spot for unrest and violence by American news media, Arab governments are actually very stable, Patel said. The uprising in Tunisia caught the local politicians, as well as the rest of the world, by surprise, he said.

“The Tunisian protests, which led to the overthrow of the Tunisian regime, were not predicted by anyone,” said Prof. Ziad Fahmy, government in an email. “As far as we can tell they were largely spontaneous and reflected the frustrations felt by the country’s youth over the lack of economic opportunity and the corruption of the ruling regime.”

There are several reasons why Tunisia became the first Arab country in decades to overthrow its government.

“There are plenty of examples [of successful protests] out there, just in the Arab world it’s unusual,” said Prof. Valerie Bunce, government. “Ben Ali was getting pretty old, [there was] a sense that people were fed up and [felt] that it was time for him to go.”

According to Bunce, Tunisia is set apart from the rest of the Arab world in part by a tradition of repressed labor, its homogeneity and its unusually strong relationships with Europe. The country’s repressive government also gave it little need and opportunity to develop opposition in the past, Bunce said.

“The popular uprising in Tunisia offers a golden opportunity for Middle East scholars to see first-hand the result of a turnover in a decades-old, stable Arab government,” said Kat Morisy ’11, a Near Eastern Studies major who conducted research on political parties in Jordan for seven months. “The rhetoric from Tunisia has been spreading to other Arab countries, which shows the ripple-effect this event has had on its neighbors.”

“All eyes are on Egypt now,” Patel said. The riots in Tunisia “showed a way” for other Arab countries to take similar action, he said.

While the future of this African country is still to be determined, the fire that Bouazizi, with his demonstration, ignited has spread to many Islamic countries. According to Patel, agitation has spread to Mauritania, Algeria, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, and official protests have been triggered in Egypt and Yemen. The uprisings in Egypt are the largest the country has experienced since the “bread riot” of 1977, according to The New York Times. As of Thursday night, 7 had been killed in the violence.

“This is extremely exciting,” Patel said. “I’m giddy, but also scared. We don’t know what is coming next, what it is going to look like.”

“We hope that the process of political change will be peaceful and that’s it,” said Bunce. “It’s up to them to sort it all out.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Kat Morisy ’11 conducted research on Islamist government in Jordan. In fact, she researched political parties in Jordan.

Original Author: Lucy Li