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North Africa sees its own intifada

By John P. Entelis, Special to CNN
  • North Africa has recently been rocked by a series of violent disturbances
  • John Entelis sees a connection between Tunisia uprising, other North African troubles
  • Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt all ruled by oppressive regimes, Entelis says
  • He says U.S. and Europe should see uprisings as a warning call

Editor's note: John P. Entelis is professor of political science and director of Middle East Studies at Fordham University, New York. He is also editor of The Journal of North African Studies.

(CNN) -- The overthrow of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia on Friday -- following weeks of demonstrations, riots, and killings -- highlights a broader uprising or intifada taking place throughout North Africa.

From Morocco to Egypt, North Africa has recently been rocked by a series of violent disturbances that have left scores dead, government leaders shaken and outside observers puzzled by the scope, timing and intensity of upheavals in a region normally viewed as stable, moderate and pro-Western.

More surprisingly, there is no evidence that the usual catalysts of populist discontent -- the Palestinian question, U.S. support for Israel or al Qaeda-sponsored terrorism -- are in any way involved in these uprisings. In each instance, local grievances appear to be at the root of these bloody outbursts.

In Morocco, army and police units have been involved in deadly clashes with Sahrawi nationalists in the Western Sahara that Morocco has occupied and annexed since 1975.

In neighboring Algeria, large towns and cities have experienced a wave of demonstrations, strikes and riots that have led to police intervention to quell the rioting among a population angry about the sudden rise in the prices of basic foodstuffs. This is in a country flush with incredible hydrocarbon-generated wealth.

Next door in Tunisia, a virtual revolution has occurred uniting a broad cross-section of youths, workers, professionals, Islamists and liberal secularists to overthrow a hated regime known for its corruption, crony capitalism and facile use of coercive force.

The collapse of the regime followed weeks of deadly nationwide riots that's unlike anything the country has experienced in recent decades.

What does Tunisia's opposition want?
Tunisia's uncertain future
Tunisia's social media revolution
The day power shifted in Tunisia
  • North Africa
  • Morocco
  • Algeria
  • Tunisia
  • Egypt

Young people in the countryside and among Tunisian society's lower socioeconomic classes find job opportunities nearly impossible and employment hopes limited in a country that has one of the highest living standards in the southern Mediterranean and boasts a quality of life that's the envy of most of its neighbors.

The increasing social divide and economic fissures in a country precariously dependent on the global economy for its prosperity have now reached crisis proportions.

In Egypt, the death and destruction focuses on religious divisions as Coptic Christians and Muslims wage a tit-for-tat war against each other's religious symbols and institutions, with scores of people dying in the process.

Yet beneath these surface differences involving a territorial dispute, "bread riots," the wrath of jobless youth and a "clash of civilization" lie a more profound and general set of conditions that serve as a common source of populist discontent among the peoples of North Africa.

This intifada or uprising is directed at the institutionalized political oppression that each regime represents and the deeply corrupt ways in which power is manipulated and abused by ruling elites.

However much the governments in Rabat, Algiers, Tunis and Cairo present themselves to the outside world as "moderate" or "cooperative" in opposing illegal immigration, drug smuggling and terrorism, in each case they rule with an iron fist that is ever ready to employ force to quell any challenges to their undemocratic rule.

Some in the West may be satisfied with the incremental way in which "democratic" reforms have been instituted via multiparty elections and other forms of public contestation. But for the overwhelming majority of these countries' citizens, they have gained little through the democratic freedoms that such elections are intended to deliver.

Indeed, these pseudo forms of democratic participation mask a more embedded and robust authoritarianism that fuses electoral engineering with coercive force to ensure the maintenance of the political status quo.

Like his Egyptian counterpart, President Hosni Mubarak, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has manipulated constitutional practices to ensure a permanent incumbency.

A broad category of people in civil society, increasingly dissatisfied with the manipulative politics of the state and no longer passively accepting the usual scapegoats that government leaders have provided to keep a dissatisfied mass public acquiescent, are beginning to stand up and rebel.

Youths, Islamists, union workers, university graduates, women, elements of the intelligentsia along with human rights activists, journalists and media personalities are all expressing a universal anger with their governments and their policies.

In each of these countries, corruption is rampant at every level of public and private sector activity. The intelligence services, or mukhabarats, are the effective decision makers who are ever ready to use force to ensure their power.

It might be too soon to predict a populist revolution erupting throughout North Africa anytime soon following the example of Tunisia. But these recent social uprisings in a region of the world important to Europe and the United States should serve as a warning call that state stability achieved through intensified political oppression, economic marginalization and social injustice are certain guaranties of the kind of societal uncertainty from which future instability occurs without any guarantee of a democratic outcome.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John P. Entelis.

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