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Europe eyes Tunisia on the brink

A demonstrator stands in the smoke of a burning barricade as he shouts at police (background) in a street near Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia Keystone

Riots in Tunisia have spread to the country’s capital, pushing the death toll higher and leaving some European observers to believe the regime's days are numbered.

The unrest also touched the Swiss capital, Bern, early on Wednesday, when several fire bombs were hurled at the Tunisian embassy. The devices failed to explode, causing minor damage and no injuries.

A Geneva-based support committee for Tunisians distanced itself from the Bern attack and issued a statement “reaffirming its commitment to a peaceful popular uprising”. Anwar Gharbi, committee coordinator, said daily rallies would be held in Geneva to show solidarity with Tunisian protestors.

Swiss media and political scientists say the violence, sparked by rising unemployment, dwindling prosperity and an iron-fist regime, is pushing Tunisia toward a second independence movement after four generations of post-colonial disillusionment. Tunisia gained independence from France in 1956.

Ahmed Benani, a Maghreb political scientist at Geneva and Lausanne universities, told Swiss public radio that the outside world needs to be involved.

“If the international community doesn’t listen to the people, that would be reason to lose hope,” he said, adding that the breaking point has already been reached.

“The pressure from the street is so high that positions can only harden.”

Patience thin

The unrest in North Africa is worrisome for Europeans, who see the region as something of a bulwark against radical Islam.

“The European Union has an interest in keeping a strong partnership,” Ivan Ureta, a professor of international relations at King’s College in London, told Swiss public radio. “This is why countries including France, Spain and Italy have not clearly condemned what happened.”

On Wednesday the Swiss foreign ministry issued a brief statement, saying it “deplores” the deaths and calling for human rights to be respected. It said the Tunisian ambassador had been summoned to receive Switzerland’s concerns.

The problems began in December, when a college graduate unable to find meaningful work set himself on fire after police confiscated vegetables he was peddling without a permit. The situation then exploded across the country.

The issue has been compounded by Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who has ruled the country for more than 20 years with little patience for opposition. Many residents grudgingly accepted the autocratic regime in exchange for a modicum of prosperity.

A report by the Swiss-based World Economic Forum (Wef) ranked Tunisia as Africa’s most competitive market.

But with the rising cost of living eroding Tunisians’ earnings and unemployment now officially at 14 per cent (the rate is believed to be double that among young college graduates), people’s tolerance has worn thin.

Time to go?

In the month of violence that has ensued, 23 people have died, according to an official count. Some international human rights groups say the figure could be double that.

As soldiers moved into the centre of the capital Tunis on Wednesday, Ben Ali changed course dramatically and fired his interior minister. He also ordered the release of all those detained in a wave of violent clashes.

The damage may already be done, says Antonella Tarquini, a journalist who has covered the Maghreb for years.

“Ben Ali now has no more credibility,” Tarquini told Swiss-Italian radio. “The promise of 300,000 jobs by 2012 does not appear to have worked as hoped precisely because, for young people, it is not just about jobs.”

Tarquini says the regime’s push for better education has created a young population that also wants more freedom and the ability to speak out.

“I don’t think you can go back after this kind of awareness,” she said. “Especially after the deaths.”

Benani agrees. “The only possible solution is for Ben Ali to leave,” he said.

Violence has also rocked Tunisia’s neighbour, Algeria, which is one of the world’s major producers of natural gas and petroleum products.

Riots broke out shortly after the new year when the government increased food prices, particularly flour, sugar and cooking oil by about 30%. Housing shortages, failed economic policies and allegations of corruption have added fuel to the fire. At least two demonstrators have been killed and hundreds have been injured, including at least 300 police officers.

To stem the violence, the government, which controls food prices, announced on January 8 that it would slash the cost of sugar and cooking oil. Calm returned.

Swiss exports to Algeria in 2009 totalled SFr620 million, a 20% increase from 2008. The Algerians bought mainly pharmaceutical products, vehicles, machines and agricultural goods.

For Switzerland, Algeria is the country’s fifth most important petroleum-product provider, with 7% of oil imports in 2009 coming from the North African country. That 7% amounts to 99% of Switzerland’s Algerian imports, a trade worth SFr168.45 million in 2009.

(With input from Daniele Mariani and Isabelle Eichenberger)

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR