In Crikey yesterday, Charles Richardson wrote a piece declaiming the world’s lack of interest in Tunisia’s “fight for democracy”.  A few points in this need clarification.

The current crisis began in the Tunisian state of Sidi Bouzid in the centre of the country on December 18, 2010, when a young Tunisian street vendor committed suicide by setting fire to himself in response to an argument with police over his right to sell produce.  This incident sparked  ongoing protests, mainly by young people and interestingly organised in large part by social networking, over economic and social conditions in the country.  Amnesty International and Al-Jazeera now report that up to 25 people have been killed in clashes between protesters and police and many more have been detained.

Recently, the European Union has called for the release of detainees, the Tunisian ambassador to the United States of America was summoned to explain what is happening and the United Nations has called for dialogue and restraint.  Meanwhile, in only the past two days, international news coverage has been provided by (to name just a few) Al-Jazeera (Arabic and English), on the front page of Le Figaro, the New York Times, the BBC and, even our own ABC.

Granted, the international community is not stamping its feet nearly as loudly at Tunisia as at protests in Iran in 2009.  However, to see this merely as an example of the West turning a blind eye to the Tunisian people in order to support a friendly autocratic government misses some of the key dynamics of what’s going on in that country.

Tunisia’s official unemployment rate is estimated by the World Bank at 14.7%, while the underemployment figure is no doubt much higher.  Many of the jobs that do exist are in the public service, which remains one of the most costly in the Arab world.  Key, too, is that the unemployment rate is 46% among recent graduates 18 months after they left university, and it is exactly those students and other young people who have been fuelling the protests.

Since the mid 1990s, Tunisia has tried to reduce the size of the public service and reduce protection of its industries in accordance with IMF and EU requirements, which has in turn exacerbated the problem while the benefits have not been realised (though admittedly bringing the country back into solvency).  Perhaps ironically, Richardson writes that “bread and circuses do not keep the people quiet”, while the protests are targeting exactly the government’s inability to provide the “bread” of jobs.

The violent suppression of protests is abhorrent and has been rightly condemned by the international community, as have broader human rights and governance issues in Tunisia.  What the country needs, however, is not international support to undermine its government, but the development of the capacity of its civil society, its private sector and good governance, all of which are slow and difficult processes already being encouraged by the international community, for example by UNDP.  More can always be done, of course, and these efforts will no doubt be further strengthened by international attention as a result of these protests.

Tunisia is far from forgotten, it’s just that Tunisians will benefit more in terms of their human, economic, social and political rights if their government is engaged rather than alienated — a policy which requires very little sabre rattling.

Tim Molesworth is an independent Middle East analyst focusing on the politics of conflict and development.

Peter Fray

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