How economic hardship fuelled the Arab Spring 10 years ago

Protests against joblessness, corruption, inequality in Tunisia in 2010 sparked a regional explosion of popular anger.

Tunisia protest
In this file photo from 2011, inhabitants of Sidi Bouzid chant slogans during a demonstration in front of the government palace in Tunis [File: Fethi Belaid/AFP]

When anti-government protests began in the interior Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid in mid-December 2010, Zakaria Hamdi knew he had to join.

An unemployed university graduate in his mid-20s at the time, Hamdi felt the same mixture of despondency and anger that drove protesters on to the streets despite the risks of repression from state security forces.

“Ninety percent of the people my age living in Sidi Bouzid were in the same situation,” Hamdi told Al Jazeera. “We’d gone to university but found ourselves sitting in cafes unable to pay for a coffee or a cigarette. And the state saw us as parasites.”

The protests in Sidi Bouzid were sparked by the self-immolation of a young street vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, on December 17, after officials in the town confiscated his produce. Bouazizi died of his injuries a few weeks later, but the despair that drove him to set himself on fire resonated, as protesters across the country rallied against corruption, economic inequality, joblessness and to demand the downfall of the regime.

“We saw that others had better prospects, and more hope in life,” said Hamdi. “This is what Bouazizi saw, too – he was a young man like us, who wanted to provide for his family. Instead, he found the police standing in his way. And his despair led him to set himself on fire.”

Amid the surge in popular outrage, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced to resign in January. Uprisings also erupted in other counties across the region, including Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Libya in what became known as the Arab Spring. In the eyes of many, the popular anti-government backlash across the region was primarily a rejection of the corruption, economic hardship, inequality and high unemployment rates resulting from states’ economic policies.

Neoliberal economic policies

The rapid spread of the protest movement from Tunisia to other states took some observers by surprise. There had been a perception, particularly among international economists and institutions, that there had been stability in a number of the countries that were on the verge of political upheaval.

Tunisia was regarded as having a stable economy, an average of 5 percent annual GDP growth, and a highly educated population. While there was little doubt that there was inequality in Egypt, the Gini coefficient that measured income inequality had declined from 36.1 percent in 2000 to 30.7 percent in 2009.

According to Mohamed-Dhia Hammami, a Tunisian political analyst, the economic figures in Tunisia did not match the reality.

“A re-evaluation conducted after the revolution showed that poverty levels under Ben Ali had been undervalued by more than 20 percent,” Hammami said. “A few days before the fall of the regime, with protesters in the street, the World Bank published a report suggesting that Tunisia was an example to follow for others in the region. The people who seemed most informed, the elites who tend to be based on the coast, were following these reports and thought everything was going well, and that market liberalisation had worked.”

Tunisian soldiers try to calm protesters during clashes with the police in the downtown of the capital Tunis January 14, 2011 [File: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters]

In Ben Ali’s two decades in office, more than 200 state enterprises were privatised, while welfare policies that had been prevalent under former president Habib Bourguiba were weakened.

“[These policies] were encouraged by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and even the European Union,” said Hammami, who considers neoliberal policies in Tunisia to have been a key reason for the prevalence of precarious jobs that many Tunisians found unappealing.

“They were often low-skilled jobs, while the number of people acquiring high-skills was increasing. This led to a brain drain, with higher-skilled people leaving, and those who stayed behind went to the streets to demand change,” Hammami added.

Youth unemployment in the Middle East and North Africa reached almost 25 percent in 2008, compared with a global average of less than 15 percent. The joblessness rates were higher among young people who had completed university education. Young people, a sizeable and growing demographic across the region, were left struggling with few real prospects of making a career that would provide for themselves and their families.

Nader Kabbani, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, blamed the way neo-liberal reforms were implemented, which he said in many Arab countries led to the empowerment of patronage networks and crony capitalists.

A Tunisian demonstrator holding a banner that reads: ‘No Reconciliation Without Judgement’, chants slogans to protest a law offering amnesty for those accused of corruption, during a march in Tunis in September 2015 [File: Riadh Dridi/AP Photo]

“What you ended up with was not a free-market economy, but a perverse economy that rewarded patronage and wasn’t allowed to grow. As a result, these economies were not able to create the required number of jobs,” Kabbani told Al Jazeera.

“People were working very hard, but not feeling like they were advancing much,” Kabbani added. “At the same time, they saw other people making money. [In Egypt,] you saw these huge communities that were almost the size of a huge town, that were syphoned off from the rest of the country. It’s hard to imagine that people didn’t see this emerging barrier between the haves and the have-nots, and that continues until today.”

Regional trouble

While each country that saw Arab Spring protests has its own unique domestic circumstances, and the region should not be viewed as one monolithic entity, the theme of elites growing richer while many people faced economic hardship was a familiar one.

In Yemen, one of the region’s poorest countries, the 2007 Hirak protests, which eventually morphed into a separatist movement, were the result of struggling retired military officers who couldn’t make ends meet once they were excluded from former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s patronage networks.

In Egypt, food prices doubled between 2007 and 2011, when former president Hosni Mubarak seemed more preoccupied with engineering a future leadership role for his son, Gamal.

Yet, 10 years after the Arab Spring, many of the socioeconomic situation problems that drove the uprisings remain unresolved. Libya, Syria, and Yemen have gone through terrible wars. Democracy has not flourished in Egypt and rights groups have warned of a human rights crisis.

Tunisia is often viewed as the one bright story, with democratic transfers of power and increased freedom of speech. But while Tunisians are able to vote for their leaders, the economic hardships that drove the uprising remain.

“If you went to Sidi Bouzid before the revolution, and came back now, you’d see that nothing has changed,” said Hamdi, who still lives in the town. “Unemployment has increased; the politicians tell us to be patient, but how long can people be patient?”

“In 2010, the chant was work, freedom, national dignity. Now the dream of a Tunisian is a gas canister. A piece of bread for his kids.”

Source: Al Jazeera