How Neoliberal Policies Triggered Widespread Poverty and Unemployment, and Perhaps an Arab ‘Caracazo’*
In the aftermath, life turned upside down in Tunisia and the fire that Bouaziz lit burned until it engulfed the entire country from town to town. He died an agonising death from his injuries, after three weeks in the hospital, triggering protests which led to the downfall of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Soon protests spread to Egypt, Yemen, Libya and other parts of Arabic North Africa, the Middle East and some Gulf States.
Bouaziz’s plight echoed the hapless fate of so many thousands and thousands of young Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans and other unemployed youth in North Africa – all seduced by the promises of higher education yet frustrated and thwarted by the visionless, un-productive, corrupt power elites of Western-friendly regimes. The uprisings have come from a complex mix of economic problems involving the sharp rise in food prices and high youth unemployment, together with a widespread hatred of autocratic and corrupt regimes. All these factors have combined in different ways in various countries, leading to a strong popular anger.
Of course we cannot deny the fact that people in one country have drawn, and will continue to draw, inspiration and strength from the mass protest movements in others. The partial successes in Tunisia and Egypt detonated similar movements elsewhere, but they did so only in countries with similar historical legacy – the same sharp socio-economic polarities between rentier rulers and marginal street labour. And, also, where the autocratic rulers were deeply integrated and subordinated to global economic interests and military networks.
Most of the North African economies where the revolts are taking place are structured strictly on ”rents” from oil, gas, minerals and tourism – which provide most of the export earnings and state revenues. These sectors are export enclaves employing a tiny fraction of the labour force, defining a highly specialised economy.
They have no links to a diversified domestic economy because all finished manufactured goods as well as financial and high-tech services are imported and controlled by multi-nationals. The most obvious common feature of the three principal storm centres so far – Tunisia, Egypt and Libya – is a far-reaching program of neo-liberal restructuring, which has been imposed by the IMF and put into practice by the regimes with similar devastating results. These include privatisation, mass poverty, growing youth unemployment, the lack of opportunities for university and college graduates, falling real wages and the accumulation of vast amounts of wealth in the hands of the country’s top ruling families and their cronies.
*Published in Political Reflection Magazine (PR) Vol. 2 | No. 2
** Bülent Gökay is Professor of International Relations at Keele University.