Problems of chronic unemployment, endemic poverty in rural areas with no tourism, rising food prices, insufficient investment, corruption and a pseudo-democratic, authoritarian political system are more or less ubiquitous across the Arab world.

The official response to unrest on Tunisia's streets comes straight out of a tyrant's playbook: order police to fire on unarmed demonstrators, deploy the army, blame resulting violence on “terrorists”, and accuse unidentified “foreign parties” of fomenting insurrection. Like other Arab rulers, President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali seems not to know any better. For this murderous ignorance, there is less and less excuse.

The trouble started last month when Muhammad Bouazizi, 26, an unemployed graduate, set himself on fire in protest at police harassment. Bouazizi's despairing act — he died of his injuries last week — became a rallying cause for disaffected legions of students, impoverished workers, trade unionists, lawyers and human rights activists.

The ensuing demonstrations produced a torrent of bloodshed at the weekend when security forces, claiming self-defence, said they killed 14 people. Independent sources say at least 50 died and many more were wounded in clashes in the provincial cities of Thala, Kasserine and Regueb.

Despite Ben Ali's assertions, there is no evidence so far of outside meddling or Islamist pot-stirring. What is plain is that many Tunisians are fed up with chronic unemployment, especially affecting young people; endemic poverty in rural areas with no tourism; rising food prices; insufficient investment; corruption; and a pseudo-democratic, authoritarian political system that gave Ben Ali, 74, a fifth term in 2009 with an absurd 89.6 per cent of the vote.

In this daunting context, Ben Ali's emergency jobs plan, announced this week, looks to be too little, too late.

Across the region

If this tally of woes sounds familiar, that's because it's more or less ubiquitous. Across the Arab world, with limited exceptions in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq, similar problems obtain to a greater or lesser degree. Indeed, until recently, Tunisia was held to be better than most. In Algeria, days of rioting after sharp food price rises this month forced the government to use some of its $150bn gas export stash to boost subsidies. In Egypt, the problems dwarf Tunisia's but are similar: the population is booming, youth unemployment is soaring, 40 per cent of citizens live on under $2 a day, and a third are illiterate.

Add to this a growing rich-poor divide, a corrupt electoral system that bans the country's largest party, the Muslim Brotherhood, and President Hosni Mubarak's apparent determination to cling to power indefinitely, and the picture that emerges is both disturbing and largely typical of the illiberal, unreformed Arab sphere.

Failing or failed Arab governance across an arc stretching from Yemen and the Gulf to North Africa is not new, nor are the likeliest remedies a mystery, except perhaps to rulers such as Ben Ali.


A discussion last month at the Carnegie Endowment identified high unemployment triggering social unrest, rapid population rises and slow growth as the key challenges facing poorer, oil-importing Arab states. Governments were urged to seek new export markets, increase manufacturing, and enhance competitiveness and jobs via education and labour market reform.

But analyst Marina Ottaway suggested the political will for reform was lacking as regional governments openly flouted calls for change. Other experts deplored a trend towards “authoritarian retrenchment” as Arab leaders used the west's preoccupation with terrorism, its energy dependence, and the Palestine stalemate to deflect external and internal reform pressures.

The striking under-performance of many Arab governments has been expertly charted in the past decade by a series of U.N.-sponsored reports. Ben Ali and his ilk would do well to study the 2009 Arab Knowledge survey produced by the Al Maktoum Foundation.

It says, in part: “Stringent legislative and institutional restrictions in numerous Arab countries prevent the expansion of the public sphere ... The restrictions imposed on public freedoms, alongside a rise in levels of poverty, and poor income distribution, in some Arab countries, have led to an increase in marginalisation of the poor and further distanced them from obtaining their basic rights to housing, education, and employment, contributing to the further decline of social freedoms.”— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011

More In: Comment | Opinion