Algeria, Tunisia See Wave Of Violence

Algeria and Tunisia share a border in the Maghreb or North Africa, and are ruled by secular, authoritarian governments. But both Algeria and Tunisia are beginning the new year engulfed in an unprecedented wave of riots and fatal clashes between protesters and the police. To talk about the roots of the violence and what it means for the region, NPR's Robert Siegel speaks to Chloe Arnold, who covers North Africa for the BBC.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Algeria and Tunisia are often cited as two of the Arab world's most stable countries. They share a border in the Maghreb or North Africa, and they're ruled by secular, authoritarian governments. But both Algeria and Tunisia are beginning the New Year engulfed in an unprecedented wave of riots and fatal clashes between protesters and police.

Yesterday, the Tunisian president ordered all universities and schools closed indefinitely. Algeria suspended some professional soccer games where crowds might form.

To talk about the roots of the violence and what it means for the region, we're joined now by Chloe Arnold, who covers North Africa for the BBC. She joins us from the Algerian capital, Algiers.

Welcome to the program.

Ms. CHLOE ARNOLD (Correspondent, BBC): Thank you.

SIEGEL: And first, Algeria, what sparked the violence there?

Ms. ARNOLD: In Algeria, the violence was sparked by price hikes at the beginning of the year for staple foods. And the prices went up by between 20 and 50 percent, but had a knock-on effect on other foods that are made with these products.

Now, what the government has said now - in order to appease the protestors - is that they will reduce the import duties and taxes on these foods. So those prices are coming down.

SIEGEL: Those price increases, you say are what sparked violence in Algeria, where you're speaking to us from. In neighboring Tunisia, what got the riots going?

Ms. ARNOLD: They were triggered by a young man, a university graduate who had not been able to find any work at all - any employment, except for selling fruit and vegetables in his local market. Well, it turned out he wasn't even allowed to do that. Police came down on him pretty heavy-handedly, confiscated his produce because they said he was selling them without a proper permit.

He, in retaliation - I suppose, if you like - set himself alight, killing himself. And this triggered enormous protests across the country.

SIEGEL: Which strikes you more, Chloe Arnold, what's similar about what's happening in these two North African countries or what's different?

Ms. ARNOLD: I think it would be dangerous to draw too many parallels. What you can say, I think, is that there are similar demographics an enormous number of young people, a vast percentage of the population is under 30 in both countries, and not a lot going on. There's even a word for it in Algeria. And I hope I'm pronouncing it correctly, it's hittiste from the word hit, which means wall in Arabic.

And it literally describes the people who stand, leaning against walls all day long, smoking cigarettes, kicking their heels because they are bored. There's nothing to do. There are no jobs. And that is similar in both countries.

SIEGEL: And one last point. The response of each government to these riots, has it been similar in Algeria and Tunisia?

Ms. ARNOLD: They've been a little different. The Algerian government responded pretty quickly. Within a week, they have had said that they would bring down the prices of staple foods - that's sugar and cooking oil. And so the immediate cause of those riots was resolved, if you like. And people have come off the streets now. The riots in Algeria seemed to have subsided.

In Tunisia, it's a different picture. There are still riots going on. The army has been brought in to try to quell the violence. And the Tunisian president has really come down pretty hard, blaming foreign parties, he says - blaming a small group of violent extremists for organizing the riots.

Of course, you need to remember that these are unprecedented riots in Tunisia. In 23 years of rule, President Ben Ali has never seen anything like this. It's the biggest threat to his presidency he's ever seen.

SIEGEL: Chloe Arnold of the BBC in Algiers, thanks for talking with us.

Ms. ARNOLD: Thank you.

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