The new year has brought a wave of protests and violence against two U.S.-friendly authoritarian Arab regimes in North Africa. Riots in Algeria over rising food prices last weekend reportedly left five people dead and some 800 injured, while police arrested more than 1,000 people in their effort to crack down on protestors. At the same time, weeks of unrest and anger at high unemployment came to a head in neighboring Tunisia, with security forces killing at least 14 civilians protesting in a number of the country's poorer towns. Hundreds of others were hurt as police fired tear gas and live ammunition into crowds, prompting condemnation by the E.U. and human-rights groups.
A call from Tunisia's marginalized political opposition for a cease-fire fell on deaf ears. Instead, the regime on Jan. 10 ordered all schools and universities shut to thwart further student mobilization. Algeria, too, was eager to deny opponents platforms for protest, suspending all the country's professional soccer games to prevent fans congregating.
For years, Tunisia has been one of the more stable countries in the region, with many citizens accepting their regime's authoritarianism in exchange for guarantees of greater prosperity. But economic decline there and continued hardship in Algeria have left both countries facing simmering resentment, particularly from younger people whose job prospects are grim. "The riots are a sign that young people in the region are losing hope," says Haim Malka, senior fellow at the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "They are getting increasingly frustrated by the lack of opportunities and accountability in their societies."
Troubles in Tunisia began after Dec. 17, when Mohammed Bouazizi, an unemployed 26-year-old college graduate, poured gasoline over his body and set himself ablaze in a public square in the town of Sidi bou Zid. Bouazizi had allegedly been beaten and humiliated by police officers while trying to hawk vegetables without an adequate license. His self-immolation Bouazizi died of his wounds on Jan. 5 struck a nerve among Tunisians, some 14% of whom are unemployed. Demonstrations kicked off nationwide, involving students and labor unions, and even a lawyers' strike. Apart from a few conciliatory gestures, the government of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali reacted aggressively, arresting dissidents (including a popular 22-year-old rapper nicknamed El General) and gunning down others, while doing its best to muzzle the press and civil society. The Committee to Protect Journalists alleges widespread censoring of the Internet and monitoring of all Tunisian-based Facebook accounts; in solidarity with the protesters, the global "hacktivist" group Anonymous, which had recently rallied behind WikiLeaks, managed to temporarily shut down a number of state-run Tunisian websites on Jan. 2.
"Though the spark seems to have been economic issues, these are protests against political systems that are totally frozen," says Elliott Abrams, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who was the deputy national security adviser handling the Middle East and North Africa in the Administration of President George W. Bush. "Nothing changes. There's little to no freedom of the press, and each election is an even worse charade than the other."
In Algeria, some three-quarters of the population is younger than 30. Few experienced the savage violence of a civil war between the government and Islamists in the 1990s that followed the military's cancellation of elections that the Islamists looked set to win, let alone the storied armed struggle that won independence from France in 1962. Yet, these experiences are still invoked to burnish the credentials of the military-backed regime of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. In the wake of the riots, the Algerian government attempted to ease the situation with the promise of food subsidies and tax relief. But those measures may be thin paper over the widening cracks emerging in Algerian society. Despite the country's abundance of natural-gas wealth, millions of Algerians remain in poverty, with large slums surrounding the capital city, Algiers. According to a report by Dubai-based al-Arabiya TV, some young protestors flung animal bones at government buildings in the major city of Oran, "because," said one, "[the government] has left nothing but bones for us."
Whereas the problem in Algeria is "primarily institutional," argues Abrams, "Tunisia is a more old-fashioned dictatorship, where efforts revolve around keeping the First Family in power." President Ben Ali is only the second ruler the former French colony has had since its independence in 1956, and he has been at the helm for 23 years. A secret U.S. diplomatic cable from 2008, released by WikiLeaks, brands Ben Ali's extended family a "quasi mafia" at "the nexus of Tunisian corruption." Other cables from the American embassy in Tunis quote U.S. officials reporting on the frustrations felt by many locals at the excesses of "the Family" and their seeming indifference to the plight of ordinary Tunisians. A 2009 cable details dinner at the lavish home of Ben Ali's son-in-law, Sakher El Materi: Roman artifacts abound while guests dine on fruit, cakes and frozen yogurt freshly flown in on a private jet from the southern French town of St.-Tropez. A large tiger named Pasha roams the garden.
In Tunisia, "you've got substantially high per capita income and a high literacy rate," says Abrams. "You do have a society there that could be democratic if only the ruling government could get out of the way." But the U.S. has been slow to push for democratic change in the region, not least because the authoritarian governments of Algeria and Tunisia are allies in the fight against Islamist terrorism. But the social instability their policies have provoked can actually work to the advantage of regional extremists. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on a visit to the Gulf states this week, plans to call publicly for political reform in the Arab world. But that may not offer much help or comfort to the civil society in Tunisia and Algeria, set against phalanxes of security personnel and the ubiquitous secret police.