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Europe Abroad: Looking at Tunisia

January 24, 2011

The recent events in Tunisia should be of special interest to those with even the most passing interest in Europe beyond the continent. This month has seen the explosion of one of the most stable states in North Africa. Tunisia has been held by many as a model of a progressive, secular, Muslim state and proof that the region is not doomed to instability and economic lag. In recent years Tunisia’s economy has rapidly developed, with major international companies like Sony investing millions in the area. Without the instability and civil war, as well as the still-tepid relationship with Europe (notably France) of its neighbor Algeria and lack of an internationally polarizing figure like Ghaddafi in Libya, Tunisia was able to develop quickly, despite its small size and has consistently realized significant economic growth since the 1990s. But this has come at a price, with former president Ben Ali sitting since the 1980s, ruling in a very restrictive and closed manner.

One aspect of this to watch for followers of Europe is where it started. The protests were sparked by a young university graduate who committed suicide by setting himself on fire after not being able to find a job once he completed studies. One of the reforms launched by Ben Ali was an increased focus on education which left a generation increasingly aware of the repression and human rights violations in their own country. The frustration felt by this generation of young, educated may sound quite familiar to a European. In 2005 France was rocked by a series of revolts against a proposed law making it easier to fire younger workers. Although the law did pass, the situation in France for young workers has not improved much. In Spain there is significant consternation, though the national unemployment rate is at 24% currently, and is much higher when confined to younger people hoping to enter the workforce. While the governments of Europe are probably not about to be toppled by riots any time soon, the possibility of riots and violence as well as a diminishing of the role of government. Certainly European governments are looking to Tunisia for a great number of reasons at the moment, the future of stability and growth in a region just on Europe’s back door, the tension between democracy and stability, and religion and secular government. Although Tunisia isn’t itself European, it highlights many of the tensions rampant in Europe and the EU, and it should be very interesting to see how Europe reacts to these events.

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