The official response to unrest on Tunisia's streets comes straight out of a tyrant's playbook: order the police to open fire on unarmed demonstrators, deploy the army, blame resulting violence on "terrorists" and accuse unidentified "foreign parties" of fomenting insurrection. Like other Arab rulers, President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali seems not to know any better. For this murderous ignorance, there is less and less excuse.
The trouble started last month when Mohammed Bouazizi, 26, an unemployed graduate, set himself on fire outside a government building in protest at police harassment. Bouazizi's despairing act – he died of his injuries last week – quickly became a rallying cause for Tunisia's disaffected legions of unemployed students, impoverished workers, trade unionists, lawyers and human rights activists.
The ensuing demonstrations produced a torrent of bloodshed at the weekend when security forces, claiming self-defence, said they killed 14 people. Independent sources say at least 50 died and many more were wounded in clashes in the provincial cities of Thala, Kasserine and Regueb. The latest reports spoke of continuing clashes in El-Kef and Gafsa.
Despite Ben Ali's assertions, there is no evidence so far of outside meddling or Islamist pot-stirring. What is abundantly plain is that many Tunisians are fed up to the back teeth with chronic unemployment, especially affecting young people; endemic poverty in rural areas that receive no benefits from tourism; rising food prices; insufficient public investment; official corruption; and a pseudo-democratic, authoritarian political system that gave Ben Ali, 74, a fifth consecutive term in 2009 with an absurd 89.6% of the vote.
In this daunting context, Ben Ali's emergency job creation plan, announced this week, looks to be too little, too late.
If this long tally of woes sounds familiar, that's because it's more or less ubiquitous. Across the Arab world, with limited exceptions in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq, similar problems obtain to a greater or lesser degree. Indeed, until recently, Tunisia was held to be better than most. In Algeria, four days of rioting about price rises in food staples earlier this month forced the government to use some of its vast $150bn stash of gas export cash to boost subsidies.
Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country, has problems that dwarf Tunisia's but are basically similar: the population is booming, 60% are under 30, youth unemployment is soaring, 40% of citizens live on under $2 a day, and one third is illiterate.
Add to this a growing rich-poor divide, a corrupt electoral system that bans the country's largest party, the Muslim Brotherhood, and President Hosni Mubarak's apparent determination to cling to power indefinitely, and the picture that emerges is both disturbing and largely typical of the illiberal, unreformed Arab sphere.
Failing or failed Arab governance across an arc stretching from Yemen and the Gulf to north Africa is not a new phenomenon, nor are the likeliest remedies a mystery, except perhaps to rulers such as Ben Ali.
A discussion last month at the Carnegie Endowment identified high unemployment triggering social unrest, rapid population rises and slow growth, caused partly by the European downturn, as the key challenges facing relatively poorer, oil-importing Arab states. Governments were urged to seek new export markets, increase manufacturing and enhance competitiveness through education and labour market reform.
But analyst Marina Ottaway suggested political leadership and the will for reform was lacking as regional governments openly flouted calls for change. Other experts deplored a general trend towards "authoritarian retrenchment" as Arab leaders used the west's preoccupation with terrorism, its energy dependence and the Palestine stalemate to deflect external and internal reform pressures.
The striking underperformance of most Arab governments in political, economic and social terms – and of the Arab League, dubbed by some an "autocrats club" – has been expertly charted in the past decade by a series of UN-sponsored Arab human development reports. Overall, they make depressing reading. Ben Ali and his ilk would do well to study the 2009 Arab Knowledge survey produced by the Al Maktoum Foundation.
It says, in part:
"Stringent legislative and institutional restrictions in numerous Arab countries prevent the expansion of the public sphere and the consolidation of opportunities for the political participation of the citizenry in choosing their representatives ... on a sound democratic basis.
"The restrictions imposed on public freedoms, alongside a rise in levels of poverty and poor income distribution, in some Arab countries, have led to an increase in marginalisation of the poor and further distanced them from obtaining their basic rights to housing, education and employment, contributing to the further decline of social freedoms."by Simon Tisdall