The flight of the president

Mass demonstrations were rare in North Africa. But 2011 has begun in extremely turbulent fashion, with the Tunisian president, Zine El Abadine Ben Ali, fleeing his imploding country for the Gulf after weeks of riots left many dead and forced the army to move into the cities. The people, disaffected and finally showing it publicly, are seriously unhappy at the way their governments have been handling their economies and jobs markets.

Algeria has also been the scene of rioting and further west, the Arab winter of discontent has been continuing in Jordan, where thousands have been marching in protest at fuel and food prices. Calls for the president to fall on his sword have been ringing round the streets there too. Sectarian bombings in Egypt further along the Mediterranean coast have heightened tensions in the region.

But back in Algeria, this is how 2010 began, with national protests as Algerians were cross about the overbearing feeling of stasis pervading the country’s political psyche and forcing the pace of social development to slow to a crawl. They finished the year up in arms again but the state of the protests in the country for the moment has calmed, as its neighbour has boiled over.

Although the protests across the Maghreb began as demonstrations against rising fuel and food prices and youth unemployment, they have turned into public manifestations of pent-up hurt and stagnation at the lack of social mobility that has been perpetuated year after year by the long-serving premiers. They have been public rejections of the current politics.

The worst disturbances have been in previously mellow Tunisia. Once they started hitting the streets week after week, the police tried to match the swelling demonstrations. Yet the passion and fervour with which the strikes have been carried out snowballed as each day came and went. The protests intensified, demonstrators died, the police stepped up control measures. This is how the pattern continued until the complete meltdown of the country’s governing structure on 14 January, when the president fled, leaving the prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, in charge.

The pressure is now on the AU, the EU, the US and other Arab countries to respond and act. Tunisians will feel they have played their role, in ousting the president. International mediation will be needed to ensure that the fragility of Egyptian sectarianism and Algerian and Jordanian public strife do not exacerbate or Europe will have a serious problem just the other side of the Mediterranean.

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