01/17/2011versione stampabileprintinvia paginasend

Algeria and Tunisia in flames: thousands of youths protest in the streets against high prices and lack of freedom

Samir Kassir died on the 2nd of June 2005. A citizen of Lebanon and, like many inhabitants of the Land of Cedars, a man with an oblique identity. Much more than a journalist. A restless and complex spirit, of the kind that guerrilla movements and politicians most fear. His life has become a testifying symbol, like Pasolini or Gramsci, other witnesses who revealed another but identical Mediterranean. His car was blown up, but his ideas were not consumed in the flames.

One continuance of those ideas: a book, Arab Unhappiness (L'infelicità araba), published in Italy by Einaudi. His words keep coming to mind in recent days, reawakened by the images from Tunisia and Algeria. Thousands of young people on the streets: stones pitted against guns. The death statistics are provisional, well over fifty in Tunisia, at least five in Algeria. Bread revolts, they're called, and rightly.
These people are nicknamed hittisti, meaning ‘those who prop up walls'. Hordes of young people without a future, thronging the nations of the Maghreb... countries whose populations have an extremely low average age. An interminable ocean of prisoners.

Kassir was well aware of this, his observant gaze passing from the Lebanon to take in the entire Arab world. His diagnosis: a crisis of suffocation. Societies that have worked relentlessly for years to eliminate even the smallest spaces for freedom. The freedom to speak, write, or participate. Political parties, associations, NGOs, unions, the press: all tamed or silenced. Governed by corrupt power cliques, oligarchies dominated by figureheads like Ben Alì or Bouteflika, regimes that have smothered every possible breath of intellectual freedom. Populations of young adults, with or without university degrees, who end up crushed helplessly: no work, no hope, no possibilities. Unless, of course, they happen to belong to the right clique.

The mainstream media, which have devoted generous space to the current spate of Arab protests, made no little or no mention of earlier bread revolts, in Egypt and Marocco, and on previous occasions in Tunisia and Algeria. Libya has been less affected, because Colonel Gaddafi's regime has a much smaller population to deal with and has mostly been able to keep its masses happy with the money entering the country since the lifting of the embargo, and also by redirecting eventual social unrest against immigrants. Just as Morocco has done for years with the Saharawi, the population of occupied Western Sahara.

And so the effect of the sharp rise in the price of basic necessities is like a firebomb being thrown into a hay barn. But it would be a mistake to see no further than the bread, a mistake not to realise that the anger is fuelled above all by the idea of the last remaining breath being suffocated: that of physical survival. For decades these nations have at least had a safety valve to placate young people robbed of their nations' wealth and of their own freedom... namely emigration. But today, with the exception of the Turkish frontier (gradually in the process of being closed), all the borders of Fortress Europe have been sealed. And so the claustrophobia becomes truly suffocating.

The danger of Islamic fundamentalist infiltration is being much trumpeted. Naturally, this does exist, as in all situations where the mosque has become the only place where young men feel free, the only place where a father or a mother and their family can find a hot meal. But - as Kassir made it clear - in the end this is only the other side of the same coin. Another face of power, money, armed violence, even if in the name of Allah. Anger, on the other hand, always has its roots in hunger.

We write Tunisia, Algeria, but we should also read London, Rome, Athens or Palestine. Fundamentalists branded as infiltrated agents. Appeals for calm, for peaceful protest only, while the very forces that make the appeals are also smothering every democratic channel for people to make their voices heard.
Take the example of the recent youth manifesto in Gaza, which roundly condemned everyone, all the political parties and all the governments. Anger, lack of air, the future already mortgaged, at prices that no one will ever be able to pay. They call them bread revolts and they're right. Because hunger has no frontiers.


Christian Elia