The first protests erupted in Sidi Bouzid when an unemployed university graduate turned street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire December 17 after police confiscated fruits and vegetables he was selling without a permit and slapped him in front of a passersby. Bouazizi, 26, tried to lodge a complaint, but authorities refused to accept it. He died January 4.
Demonstrations spread across the country, unleashing fury at high unemployment, rising food prices, and Ben Alis dictatorial regime.
Its not just about unemployment anymore, a Sidi Bouzid resident told Reuters. Its about freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, all the freedoms.
The day before he fled, Ben Ali went on television and promised not to run for reelection in 2014; he slashed prices on sugar, bread, and milk. Ben Ali dissolved the government, promised new elections within six months, and said he would end Internet censorship and allow more freedom of the press. Ben Ali said he had ordered police to stop using live ammunition against demonstrators.
Too little, too late. The next day some of the largest demonstrations took place. Many shouted Ben Ali, out! and Ben Ali, assassin! One marchers sign said We wont forget in reference to the dozens of protestors killed by police over the previous weeks.
Backed by imperialists
Essentially a French colony beginning in 1881, Tunisia won its independence in 1956 with Habib Bourguiba as its first prime minister. In 1975 he proclaimed himself president for life. Ben Ali overthrew Bourguiba on Nov. 6, 1987, after being appointed prime minister a month earlier.
At first Ben Alian army general who had studied at the Saint-Cyr military academy in France and at the U.S. Army Intelligence School at Fort Holabird, Maryland took measures to project himself as a democratic and progressive leader in the Maghreb, as the five North Africa countries of Tunisia, Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria, and Libya are known. He pardoned 3,000 prisoners, mostly political and Islamist opponents, and allowed six opposition parties to operate.
But the moves didnt last long. In 1989 in the first election after Bourguibas overthrow, Ben Ali ran as the sole candidate, backed by all the so-called opposition parties, winning 99.3 percent of the vote. He maintained Bourguibas secret police apparatus.
Under Ben Alis iron hand, the Tunisian government promoted business-friendly policies, well liked by European and U.S. capitalists. The economy is based on oil, phosphate mining, textiles, other light industry, tourism, and agricultural exports.
Pfizer pharmaceutical, Ericsson electronics, and Siemens health products all set up operations in the country. Arizona-based Paradigm Precision Holdings has an aircraft parts plant outside Tunis, paying machine operators just $280 a month.
French capitalists are the biggest winners in scooping up profits, with some 1,200 companies, representing 41 percent of foreign investment. Italian, German, Belgian, British, and Spanish firms jockeyed to make sure they got their share of the pie.
A 2010 guide published by the U.S. Department of Commerce said that Tunisia is a small and politically stable country on the North African Coast. It has the most diversified economy in the region. Noting that its competitors in France, Italy, and Germany were ahead, the report said that the U.S. Embassy in Tunis would actively work so that U.S. firms are able to successfully compete against better-established European companies.
Although direct U.S. economic interests were small, Ben Alis regime was a valued U.S. ally in Washingtons war on terror, cracking down on Islamists in Tunisia and closely cooperating with the CIA and FBI.
The Tunisian economy grew 5 percent a year between 2004 and 2008. The country boasts of a 74 percent literacy rate, one of the highest in North Africa and the Middle East, and has seven airports and eight commercial ports.
Youth unemployment at 52 percent
While business was good for Ben Ali, his cohorts, and foreign capitalists, working people and the middle classes were being battered by the worldwide capitalist economic crisis. Unemployment is officially at 14 percent, but among youth is 52 percent. More than 700,000 Tunisians live in France.
Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi are especially hated. They muscled in on virtually every local business, from cell phones and car dealerships to toothpaste and supermarkets, and flaunted their wealth. Protestors not only set fire to the offices of the ruling political party, but ransacked luxurious villas and businesses linked to Ben Ali.
Hoping to put an end to the protests, Tunisian officials announced January 17 they were forming a national unity including three opposition parties to take the fallen dictators place. The new government is headed by longtime Ben Ali ally Mohamed Ghannouchi as prime minister.
For many in Tunisia, that is not enough. That same day demonstrations took place against Ben Alis Constitutional Democratic Rally party (RCD) in several towns. In Sidi Bouzid, demonstrators chanted Bread and water and no RCD.
Arab regimes in the region are worried about the example of the Tunisian uprising. The Syrian government reversed course and increased subsidies for heating oil for public workers by 72 percent January 16. The Jordanian government announced $125 million in fuel and food subsidies following protests last week.
Soon after the Tunisian dictator flew to Saudi Arabia, a small group held a demonstration in Cairo, Egypt, chanting, Ben Ali tell Mubarak a plane is waiting for him too. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak has been in power for nearly 30 years; like Ben Ali he has stifled opposition parties and newspapers.
Washington is also nervous. At a conference in Qatar January 13, U.S. secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for reform and warned Arab rulers that people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order . It is time to see civil society not as a threat, but as a partner.
A few days later, Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Aul Gheit said, Western and European nations should not interfere in Arab affairs. The talk about the spread of what happened in Tunisia to other countries is nonsense, he added.
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