Last month, street protests rocked the North African country of Tunisia and brought down the autocratic government of Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali that had been in power since 1987. The protests started after Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old college graduate, set himself on fire to protest police harassment and the lack of opportunity in his country. Similar acts by educated, unemployed young people who were fed up with bleak prospects for the future and an inability to voice dissent followed. Protests in Sidi Bouzid, where Bouaziz lived, eventually spread to the capital Tunis and now, a little over a month later, a new government is in power and the former dictator, Ben Ali, has fled the country.
While some believe that Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” will spread across the region, there is quite a bit of evidence suggesting that Tunisia’s uprising was a unique occurrence. Unrest has moved to Tunisia’s neighbor, Egypt, but the lasting effects of this remain far less certain. As Shadi Hamid, of the Brookings Institution, notes, “The U.S. is the primary benefactor of the Egyptian regime, which, in turn, has reliably supported American regional priorities.” In addition to geo-political differences, Tunisia stood out to me as an appropriate topic for More than Me’s blog because the thing that sets this desert country apart is the role education played in toppling Ben Ali’s government.
Tunisia ranks 18th in the world for public investment in education and 74.3 percent of the population can read and write, which is fairly high for the region. These two factors, coupled with a strong middle class (which typically accompanies an educated population), led to a large portion of the population who felt they deserved more than autocracy. It is notable that during the early protests, unemployed college graduates were leading the charge. The power of education to make people aware that they deserve better and to demand democracy has been on view in the streets of Tunis since late December.
If you look at Liberia, where More than Me works, the government ranks 157th in education expenditures, right behind Kazakhstan. Thankfully, democratic institutions have remained fairly strong in Liberia since the end of the civil wars. This means that the infrastructure exists for an open, accountable government, but to be truly effective an informed, literate, and educated citizenry is necessary. More than Me’s work will only help strengthen the democratic institutions in Liberia by providing the next generation of voters with the tools they need to make informed decisions. Education is important not just for rebuilding a nation, but for maintaining it and strengthening it for the future.
The lessons of Tunisia resonate beyond its borders and attest to the power of education.