Wednesday, January 12, 2011

North Africa At A Tipping Point

This editorial was published in the Daily Star on 12/01/2011

The international media spotlight is focusing on Tunisia and Algeria these days, and while there are plenty of country-specific reasons for recent incidents of unrest and violence, there is also a wider, troubling North African phenomenon at play.

It’s called a lack of responsiveness by regimes to the aspirations of their people, and a stubborn inability to recognize that there is a problem in the first place.

Any reasonably competent group of North Africa experts that convenes for a conference could list the usual suspects from which this region suffers: poverty, unemployment, corruption, authoritarianism, and religious extremism, to name several.

In past years, the media has covered the saga of North Africans risking their lives to escape their homelands by heading for Europe in open boats, as they leave behind a devastating lack of opportunity. These regimes, and especially those in Tunisia and Algeria, are now seeing the flip side of this equation, namely what happens when the people who stay in the country find that they’ve reached their tipping point.

In Tunisia, the unrest has centered on a lack of opportunity for young university graduates, and young people in general. There has been a harsh security clampdown and casualties from among the ranks of protestors, including one horrifying case of self-immolation. Meanwhile, President Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali has promised to create 300,000 jobs by the end of next year. One may naturally ask why such an urgent need wasn’t on the radar of the authorities, or the agenda of the government, before the recent unrest began.

In Algeria, the sudden lifting of state subsidies has plunged the country into turmoil, with young people’s disappointment and anger at the forefront of events.

The authorities trot out their tired cliché that a foreign plot is behind the violence, but this can be expected from rulers who use security personnel to protect their authoritarian systems of rule. The freedom to talk about what is actually happening is restricted, amid a rigid and corrupt political system.

All of the countries in the Maghreb are experiencing the lack of political and economic opportunity, and a growth in activity by groups like Al-Qaeda, eager to exploit such conditions of despair and anger.

The tsunami of anger should have been expected, and a harsh climate of repression doesn’t translate into security; it only means that problems are bottled up, with the eventual explosion guaranteed to be violent.

No foreign plot is behind the recent violence, just as no foreign plot was responsible for the decision by people to risk their lives to leave such countries.

If regimes continue to inhabit a state of denial about how they are treating their populations, the scenes of unrest and violence should surprise no one.

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