Yes, this question appears to be what everyone is debating over, after the outburst of public anger in Tunisia, which forced President Ben Ali to flee after 23 years in power. Will the infection spread to other countries in the region suffering from the same social problems as the young Tunisian, [Mohammed] Bouazzi, which prompted him to set himself on fire, releasing a spark of protests that grew every day, like a snowball?
Factors of social unrest are evident in more than one Arab country and are not exclusive to Tunisia. They have been fueled by the global economic crisis, since it erupted two years ago. Economists and experts warned that its fallout would lead to civil unrest in developing countries, what with the decline in international finance and trade. However, history suggests that the experiences of countries vary according to circumstances. The Iranian Revolution, which has now transformed into a regime that faces strong opposition, differs from the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, which in turn is different from what happened in Poland, where the country experienced a transition from communism.
The Tunisian events came as a surprise to everyone in the Arab region, the West, and the regime itself there. Two or three months ago, no one would have dreamed of the scenario we are witnessing now, and we are currently seeing many trying to ride its wave. For years, Tunisia seemed to be a stable oasis in a region filled with turmoil, with its thriving tourism, and a GDP per capita reaching 8000 dollars per year. This is a high rate compared to other countries in the region, or even developing countries in general. Up until 2008, Tunisia had successfully achieved annual growth rates exceeding 5 percent, with a diversified economy including tourism, industry and export.
From 2009, growth fell to less than one percent, and exports dropped by approximately a quarter, due to the global economic crisis and the shrinking European market, which was the main consumer of Tunisian exports. The problems, which years of growth had concealed, began to emerge, such as a high unemployment rate, estimated at around 15 percent, 30 percent of which were university graduates, with big ambitions and expectations, and even louder voices. They fueled the mass revolution, and among them was the young man named Mohammed Bouazzi, who it seems has subsequently transmitted the phenomenon of self-immolation to other Arab countries.
When there is a concentration of young people without hope, as a result of unemployment, a sense of injustice as a result of corruption, and a feeling that not everyone is benefiting from the fruits of development, the conditions are perfect for volatile public anger, especially if there are no means to vent opinions or criticism, let alone bring about peaceful change.
Consequently the result was a public outcry, which took on a form that many are still puzzled by. The civil unrest was certainly largely spontaneous, as no political force could say that it was behind it, or had planned it. The demands were simple, and reflected widespread impatience with the head of the regime, in particular his use of the security apparatus, which was blind to the reality of this public anger, and his use of repressive violence.
It appears that Tunisia is still at the beginning of its road, and it is difficult to predict accurately where this will lead. Will it lead to openness and pluralism, whereby people are assimilated into society, or will forces jump to fill the vacuum and direct matters towards their own interests, as has happened in the past? Everyone hopes that Tunisia will become a safe environment once again, and that politicians can establish a system which meets the aspirations of the people.
Returning to the previous question, will this infection spread? There seems to be certain haste, at least on the surface, to understand why ordinary people would take to the streets in protest. We understand that they do not do so merely out of tradition, the conditions of their society, or their various regimes, but the important lesson from Tunisia, in the long run, is that unemployment and development are the principal challenges facing the region. These challenges also affect many countries, but freedom of expression is a means to vent frustration.