The president of Tunisia, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, has been forced out of power after weeks of social unrest – and it seems that high food and commodity prices could have played a role. Ben Ali ruled the North African nation for nearly a quarter of a century, but anti-government sentiment rose sharply as conditions worsened for average Tunisian men and women.
The core problem in Tunisia is economic – unemployment remains high, and as the situation worsens the rising cost of food becomes more untenable. The official jobless rate is 14 percent, but it's estimated to be far higher in many regions.
In fact, the now-ex-president has had to flee the country, as street violence overwhelmed the police and military's efforts to control it.
"Since the president is temporarily unable to exercise his duties, it has been decided that the prime minister will exercise temporarily the duties," said prime minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, who has taken charge of the shattered regime. "I call on the sons and daughters of Tunisia, of all political and intellectual persuasions, to unite to allow our beloved country to overcome this difficult period and to return to stability."
Before today, Ben Ali dismissed Parliament and called a snap election.
It's not hard to see the role rising food prices played in this drama – and it seems quite possible that other nations may join Tunisia in mass action over the price of sustenance.
In its most recent report, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization wrote:
"Countries themselves need to explore or reinforce measures to protect the most vulnerable, including through emergency food reserves … In the long run, countries can lower their vulnerability by raising agricultural productivity for a diverse set of crops that proves both competitive and sustainable, as well as by promoting dietary diversification."
Protestors in Tunis, were calling for a reduction in the price of staple foodstuffs like wheat, sugar and milk – and though the president vowed to deal with the problem, the public anger had grown too quickly to be effectively contained. These feelings soon combined with Tunisia's other problem: a largely unemployed population of college graduates, many with years of schooling but no job prospects on the horizon.
Any group of educated but disaffected young men and women can quickly become a political and popular force, sparking a critical mass of discontents into action.
Tunisia isn't alone, either – Algeria, China and India have all seen food riots recently. Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times wrote on his blog about the potential that the unrest may spread to Egypt, another country with an autocratic president in charge of a nominal democracy and an unstable system of fixing food prices.
In 2007 and 2008, Egypt was rocked by "bread riots" after the government raised the price of subsidized bread.
The spark for the unrest also came about because of food. A young man named Mohamed Bouazizi sold fruit and vegetables from a hand-pushed cart in the rural hamlet of Sidi Bouzid, though he held a diploma from a national university. He supported his family with his sales, but didn't hold a vendor's license. After the police confiscated his cart and his goods, he lit himself on fire in protest outside the governor's office.
That act captured the rage, frustration and humiliation of poor Tunisians, some of whom copied his self-immolation while others took to the streets.
"The street protests are spontaneous, not a movement with a leader," Khadija Sharif, a sociologist and lecturer at a university in Tunis, told the Guardian. "Nor has Ben Ali prepared any succession of his own. It's the complete unknown. We're afraid of chaos, no one knows whether there is a possibility of a military coup, or of an Islamist presence."
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