Twelve people are reported dead in riots sweeping Tunisia today, bringing the death toll for the month to 23, as an angry populace calls for the resignation of longtime President Zine al-Abendine Ben Ali. He’s been in office since Ronald Reagan was President of the United States, having gotten there by seizing power from his “medically unfit” predecessor. Lately he’s been floating the idea of stepping down in 2014, but the people of Tunisia apparently figure 24 years is enough.
As Reuters puts it, the people are “fed up with unemployment, a lack of liberty, and the huge wealth of a tiny elite under Ben Ali.” I wish the human race would finally understand that those three things come together, always. The slogan of the protestors is “Yezzi Fock!” That means “It’s Enough!” in the Tunisian dialect. I think it might just catch on in the United States. Maybe we can get T-shirts printed up in time for the next Tea Party convention.
The Tunisian government exercises very tight control over its economy. How tight? The current riots were sparked by the suicide of a 26-year-old student, who set himself on fire after the government confiscated his unlicensed fruit stand. Unemployment is (gulp!) about 14%, although a report in The Independent says it’s closer to double that among young people, and even worse in rural areas.
Interestingly enough, as recently as 2009, the International Monetary Fund was praising the economic policies of President Ben Ali as a “pragmatic approach to structural reforms” which have “produced significant gains” and kept the global financial crisis from having “direct financial impact on the country.”
The collapse of the national economy is a case study in authoritarian control outliving its usefulness, but refusing to go away. Originally, Tunisia was supposed to evolve along the lines of South Korea, an economic wonder that also used state regulation to push business profits back into capital investment. This was deemed necessary to help it recover from the influence of French colonial domination. Unfortunately for Tunisia, it’s not a Cold War hotspot that can benefit from the patronage of deep-pocketed Western powers. Also, its main industries – textiles, tourism, and mining – don’t produce the kind of high-skilled, high-wage jobs that South Korea’s high-tech renaissance did. A lot of those protesters on the streets of Tunis are lawyers, artists, and university graduates waving useless diplomas.
Tunisia did manage to modernize considerably, but the authoritarian President didn’t follow up by liberalizing. Instead, he used increasingly repressive measures to thwart the growing independence of an educated middle class, while economic control was perverted to produce the usual band of filthy-rich cronies. The middle class is the mortal enemy of all collectivist regimes, because it combines a natural hunger for freedom with the financial and electoral power to obtain it. In Western countries, including the United States, collectivists seek to defeat the middle class by getting them hooked on entitlements. In Tunisia, they use bullets tear gas.
President Ben Ali has promised some concessions to the rioters, such as making food more affordable, and ordering the police not to shoot them. On the other hand, he dissolved his government and imposed a curfew. He’s facing the prospect of general strikes, and Western travel warnings will cripple the vital tourism industry. It doesn’t look like he plans to go anywhere, and the protesters aren’t going to give up and go home.
Let us watch the unrest in Tunisia, hope for the best, and once again learn that authoritarianism is a hammer that is rarely set down willingly. In fact, there is only one dramatic example in the modern era, and the Western Left hated his guts: Augusto Pinochet, the dictator of Chile, whose rule ended voluntarily after 17 years. Zine al-Abendine Ben Ali has already been in power seven years longer than that. Pinochet was no angel. Ben Ali is no Pinochet.