The autocratic regimes in power in Tunisia and Algeria will continue to protect the privileges of their élite.

Can we expect the modernization of the Maghreb today on the wave of the recent "bread riots"? Do the young people in the city squares dream of a more just and egalitarian society, or are they likely to start shouting that Islam is the answer, and take out their anger on the USA and Europe rather than on Ben Alì and Bouteflika?

When the leader of a revolt is a 26-year-old named Mohammed Bouaziz, who sets himself on fire when police smash his fruit cart, his only means of survival despite his university degree, as Europeans, our reflex is to take his side. Whose side should we take when the other victim - Ben Amour, a 22-year-old rapper arrested for singing, "President, your people are dying" - is in prison as the number of deaths in Tunisia rises by the hour, the unrest spreads, and the price of bread increases by 30%?

Until a few days ago, we did not know what was going on in Tunisia . The government of Ben Alì -- the President who sent Habib Bourguiba packing -- had managed to hush up the riots in the city squares; the growing repression against the blue-jeaned, sneakered youths; the teenage deaths; the fact that, little by little, practically all of Tunisian society was joining the demonstrators in the squares and that even 95% of the lawyers went on strike; that the hackers had rendered virtually all government websites unusable, and signs that the Tunisians have reached at the end of their tether are widespread and omnipresent.

Then Algeria erupted – a country with huge, powerful and spectacular connotations in our minds: the white casbah; the historical hideout of Communists and Islamists; the anti-colonial revolt; Gillo Pontecorvo's film, "The Battle of Algiers;" the origins of Albert Camus, and the horror of the present time. The slaughter began in 1988 with the fiercest Islamic fundamentalist attack ever witnessed -- a war that meted out between 150,000 and 200,000 deaths, starting with the clash between the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) and the military, and escalating to the massacre of its own population.

Now Algeria, together with Tunisia, is once more a theater of violence due to the "bread riots", caused only occasionally by the disproportionate rise in the price of staple products, but substantially by the typically domineering attitude of the "moderate" Arab government: 75% of the population is under the age of 30, a seething sea of turmoil. The majority of them are cast adrift without prospects in a society in which three or four families still live in one house, and in which birth-control policies have failed miserably.

The Algeria that "counts" has the country's considerable energy production under lock and key in the golden safes of high society, and the proceeds go exclusively to restricted social groups. The country also prefers to employ Chinese labor instead of the local workforce, and has been incapable of using the infrastructure inherited in 1963 to advantage. It neglects the population -- a situation which makes the population easy prey for the powerful Islamist network that is always lying in wait.

This tide of furious young people, willing to die if need be, is undoubtedly a social modernization movement; due to the regimes' self-interest, however, the Islamist dogma could overwhelm their thirst for justice and seize the upper hand over the riots.

In the past we identified with every revolt that seemed in favor of the poor, but a hard lesson was learned from the Iranian revolution: although it impassioned many, it soon gave birth to a fundamentalist, imperialist power that acted in violation of all human rights.

So now caution is required, as well as a real commitment to help those people protesting for bread and for the great dream of the Arab world: democracy. "One positive factor is that there is no longer an Islamist undercurrent among the youth – the social relationship between fanaticized masses and the people broke down when Al Qaida began to gain ground and dragged the young upper class youth into its ranks. Poor youth are not involved in this", says Khaled Fuad Allam, a sociologist at the University of Trieste , and an Algerian affairs analyst. The times are over, he claims, when - as was the case during his studies at the University of Oran - even plastic knives and forks were removed in an attempt to prevent clashes between secular and religious young people. Now the Islamists have also been decimated after the mass warfare that caused such bloodshed for so
many years.

Although Islamism is not, therefore, to blame here, and not present as a large force, it has begun to insinuate itself into universities and mosques to pilot these angry young people -- just as it did in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. "Moderate" Arab country does not indicate honest respect for human rights and good governance for its own people; yet we still tend to content ourselves with this adjective. Why not try saying the word "democratic"? Perhaps that would work better against these Islamic extremists?

This article originally appreared in Italian in Il Giornale, January 9, 2011

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