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One-party rule and too few jobs are stirring anger in North Africa

President Ben Ali (Sarah Murray)

EYES INSIDE - TUNISIA

The popular uprising in Tunisia, and the government's violent crackdown, has now entered its third week – and finally reached the streets of the capital. The stakes couldn't be higher for President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who has been mixing the rhetoric of appeasement with brute force.

In a televised speech Thursday night, the 74-year-old leader -- who has not allowed any real opposition in more than two decades of rule -- ordered cuts in food prices, pledged to stopping blocking Internet access, and even hinted that he would abandon the presidency by 2014.

Ben Ali told his nation, "I have understood you. I won't accept that another drop of the blood of a Tunisian be spilled," according to the Associated Press. He stated he would not change the standing presidential age limit of 75, which means he would be ineligible to run when his latest term expires in three years.

Still, it is unclear how to read his latest vows. The government crackdown did not abate after Ben Ali forced the Interior Minister to step down earlier in the week. Activists say scores have died, while the government reports 23 deaths from the clashes, which began in the wake of the December self-immolation of an unemployed university graduate protesting government's economic policy.

A curfew imposed Wednesday night has not managed to stop violent protests, and soldiers reportedly fired live bullets into the crowd in the capital, Tunis, killing at least one protester and injuring an unidentified American journalist. Schools and universities remain indefinitely closed.

It seems the Tunisian public was willing to put up with decades of single-party rule (Ben Ali was re-elected for a fifth term in 2009 with 89.62% of the vote), with severe media restrictions, with the vast high-level corruption, with the First Family taking the most lucrative businesses for itself (a claim bolstered by the Wikileaks cables) and an unaccountable intelligence service.

But what the crisis really seems to be about is jobs. The official unemployment rate stands at 14 percent, though official jobs numbers in the Arab world are usually half the economic reality on the ground. The rioters are risking their lives to voice their anger, an indicator of how little they feel they have to lose. With 55 percent of the country under 25 years of age, the young people of Tunisia clearly feel their future prospects are grim.

The international community has done little to stop the violence other than generic calls for restraint. But if a Facebook group is any indicator, foreign assistance is exactly what protesters don't want. The Arabic-language "Urgent updates on the Tunisian protests' group, which shot up from 16,000 members to 47,000 this week, hosts an album of images demanding the United States and France not intervene. People seem to feel that foreign intervention will bolster Ben Ali's stake on power. Other images include cartoons critical of the ruling family, one with prison bars superimposed over a picture of the president.

One aspect of the crisis that has raised concerns abroad is the difficulty in breaking through Tunisia's media censorship, even in the digital age. The government is reportedly hacking into social networking and email accounts to prevent word from reaching outside Tunisia. The national media is virtually ignoring the disturbances and providing fawning coverage of the government as doing its best to stop terror from destabilizing society. Foreign reporters are being kept away from as much of the unrest as possible, forced to cite other reports second-hand. Still, it is clear that, for now at least, the protests are continuing, even growing, as the Tunisian people do what other repressed Arab citizens have not: rely on each other and dare to speak out.

Kristen Gillespie

Worldcrunch

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