21 May 2020
Students spark Tunisian uprising
Published online 18 January 2011
After four weeks of street protests in Tunisia, triggered by angry unemployed university graduates, Tunisians have ousted President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled for nearly a quarter of a century.
The protests started on 18 December 2010 when Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed university graduate working as a street vendor, committed self-immolation in protest after police confiscated his stock of fruits and vegetables. This sent ripples through society, with many academics decrying day-to-day life, which is rife with corruption, unemployment and hikes in food prices.
"All conditions in the country warned of a social danger, but no one expected it would bring such an upheaval. The elites have often warned the ruling party of this, but all warnings went unheeded," said Allani Allaya, an Islamic studies professor at the University of Jendouba.
"The first sparks for this revolution came from the students and professors, but let's not attribute the events that followed to them only. All segments of society took part in this," he added.
Unemployment amongst Tunisia's 10 million people has been hovering for years at around 14% despite all attempts by the government to stimulate employment. Unemployment is even higher amongst university graduates, with almost 25% of graduates failing to find work. Allaya adds this is worse in landlocked cities beyond the richer coastal region.
Despite having a better education system than its North African neighbours, the high rate of graduate unemployment in Tunisia means many young people shun third-level education.
"The quality of university education in Tunisia has been recessing in the past years because of the unemployment and marginalization that university graduates endure. They don't care anymore and are all desperate and think of nothing but migration to Europe," Djamela Boudroub, a political science student, told Nature Middle East.
Hatem Bettahar, a Tunisian-French computer scientist at the Technological University of Compiègne who was visiting Gabes University in Tunisia was shot dead during the protests, stoking anger within the academic community.
Role of new media and technology
The quality of university education in Tunisia has been recessing in the past years because of the unemployment and marginalization that university graduates endure.
During riots, the government shut all schools and universities, which remain closed under a state of emergency declared after Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia. Some students are now worried that if the unrest continues for several more weeks an academic year will be lost. But Rayma Kac, an economics student at Tunis University, expects her fellow students will be able to make up lost time. Some universities will have extra classes while others may distribute self-study material to the students.
Karim Abdelmouleh, a professor at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Tunis University, added that the universities will also use the midterm holidays to catch up.
Internet penetration in Tunisia is estimated at 34%, among the highest in Africa. Students used blogs and social networks to document recent events in real time. Facebook and Twitter became primary sources of news for many major news organizations.
"Social media played a pivotal role in the Tunisian uprising. The voices of citizens were carried to others in a simple manner, away from the agendas of newsrooms," Nadjib Bakhouch, a media professor at the University of Biskra, Algeria, told Nature Middle East. "The pictures were stronger than any comments made with them."
Official have announced on the Tunisian Hanbal television station that schools and universities will reopen on 24 January.
"After all the victories these young people have won, I'm sure they will return to universities in high spirits to rebuild Tunisia," said Abdelmouleh.