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An Egyptian protester shouts slogans in front of a police cordon in Cairo. ((Yannis Behrakis/Reuters) )

The political demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen in recent weeks have galvanized North Africa and the Middle East. They’ve also compelled Western observers to identify root causes.

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Morrocan-born author and political commentator Laila Lalami. ((Lailalalami.com))

The spate of protests in cities like Tunis, Cairo and Sanaa, Yemen, were largely stirred by a shocking act of martyrdom. On Dec. 17, a 26-year-old Tunisian fruit seller named Muhamed Bouazizi set himself on fire — and later died – after police revoked his seller’s permit. Bouazizi’s act reflected a more general economic vulnerability, as well as the callousness of the state, and has inspired anti-government protests in Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen.

Is it merely poverty that’s driving these demonstrations or political repression? Has Islamic fundamentalism played a role? And what part has social media played in advancing the agenda? CBC News spoke to Laila Lalami, a Moroccan-born novelist and political commentator who has written on the Middle East for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Nation magazine, about the social and political forces behind this wave of dissent.

CBC News: The self-immolation of Muhamed Bouazizi is being touted as the event that sparked the unrest across North Africa and the Middle East. Was there any sign previous to this that something might happen?

Laila Lalami: The telltale sign was that it happened in Tunisia. First of all, the act of self-immolation had been used in North Africa in 2005. There were four Moroccans, university graduates, who had been promised jobs and the government hadn’t delivered, so they tried to set themselves on fire. But each country is very different. In the case of Tunisia, the state had clamped down so much on free expression. It was essentially a police state; there was one policeman for every 40 adults. In Algeria, there were protests all the time, but it didn’t lead to anything. But in Tunisia, once the protests got started, I knew right away that it was something unusual and something more serious.

You have to understand that, given the religious culture in North Africa, it is extremely taboo to commit suicide or any kind of act against the self. Self-immolation is absolutely horrific, so it just goes to show how desperate this young man was. I think there was really identification between the university graduates and this young man. He became a symbol for them for what they have to endure every day. People, even when they have university degrees, and they’re educated, even when they do have jobs, often times they have to give bribes for every little thing. It just makes life on an everyday basis very difficult.

How does Tunisia compare, politically, to your native land of Morocco?

Obviously, each country is very different, and in the case of Morocco, for example, there are opposition parties. They’re not popular, as people have lost hope in their ability to bring change, but there is a field in which it is possible to express opposition. So, the press is a little bit freer than [in] Tunisia. It doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen in Morocco – it could. But it’s just that it’s less likely to happen in a place where there is an ability, however limited, to express yourself and somehow make it work. I think that’s what was missing in Tunisia. The repression was so total that when the young people rose, there was nothing that could stop them.

The explanations for these uprisings have included food prices, unemployment and police brutality. Is there a single issue that’s galvanizing people?

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Yemeni activist Tawakul Karman holds a rose during an anti-government protest in Sanaa, Yemen, on Jan. 26, 2011. Protesters in the Arab world's most impoverished nation have called for the removal of U.S.-allied President Ali Abdullah Saleh. ((Hani Mohammed/Associated Press))

To be perfectly honest, I think it’s just a thirst for freedom – that’s the one way that you can summarize it. These are young people who are sick and tired of the life that they are forced to lead. They’ve done everything that was asked of them – they got their education. They can’t find jobs, and when they do find jobs, they constantly have to dole out bribes just to lead a normal life. They are sick of it. They want lives filled with dignity. The [government] opposition hasn’t delivered. And when [the youth] look to the West for help, they see foreign powers that are perfectly content to support these dictators while at the same time delivering lectures on democracy. So, it’s impossible; you feel like you’re on your own. This is the message that Tunisia has delivered to the world: if you want change, you have to get it on your own.

How great an effect do you think social media has had on the protests?

Every revolution is going to use tools. In the old days, people used tracts to get their message across. To be honest, I get really concerned when people say it’s a Twitter revolution, or a Facebook revolution or a WikiLeaks revolution. They’re wanting to impose a narrative from above and one that seems to credit the West, essentially, for bringing about change. I got an email yesterday from someone who was very upset with me, saying, "Are you sure WikiLeaks didn’t contribute?" Everything contributes! When it’s your life and you’re willing to go on the street and get beaten up by thugs, then you can say, "Oh yeah, it was WikiLeaks [that inspired me]." People don’t go on the street simply because of the availability of [the Internet]; they go on the street because they need jobs. They want freedom.

Do you have any sense of how many people in that part of the world have access to social media tools?

See, that’s the other point. When you talk about Twitter and WikiLeaks, you’re talking about a small percentage of the population that either has access to these tools or who is even paying attention to them. The guy who committed self-immolation in Tunisia was a fruit vendor. How much access to Twitter does he need? It seems like [social media tools] have played a role, but they didn’t drive the revolutions in any way.

What effect do you think the protests will have on American foreign policy? The U.S. has very friendly relations with Morocco and Egypt, particularly.

Well, in the case of Egypt, it’s a big deal. Egypt gets $2.3 billion US in foreign aid from the United States – much of which, by the way, is aid for police and military work. Truly, these are our tax dollars at work, when you see those thugs beating protesters on the streets.

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Tunisian policemen and firemen chant slogans on top of a fire engine during a protest in Tunis on Jan. 22, 2011. ((Zohra Bensemra/Reuters) )

Tunisia, in some sense, is really peripheral to U.S. foreign policy; Egypt is another matter altogether. You have the Camp David Accords, and you have the United States in a position where it is terrified that whoever comes next might endanger these accords. So, that’s why I think they’ve been willing to put up with this clown [Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak] for 29 years: because he’s been so good at telling them, ‘It’s either me or the loonies.’ And this is, by the way, a strategy that all dictators have used — that’s what President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen has used. No surprise there. That’s the danger with Egypt.

The United States is really learning from the missteps of the French foreign ministry, so they’re treading carefully. [Last week, France’s foreign minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, offered to help the Tunisian government subdue the protesters. She has since claimed her words were distorted.] Right now, [U.S. leaders] haven’t made any mistakes. Obviously, a lot of people wish Obama could have used the state of the union address to say that he supported the Egyptian people. He didn’t. But I think it’s better to be quiet and not say something stupid. The United States, if it wants to continue with this narrative of democracy, cannot be seen to support someone [in this region] – especially when it looks like he’s on the way out.

When it comes to unrest in the Middle East, people often assume that there is a religious angle. Is any of what’s going on coloured by Islamic fundamentalism?

These protests were not driven by any kind of political parties within Tunisia, however few there are, or by any outside – the Islamic party had been banned, and its leader had been in exile. When the protests started in Egypt, the government tried to blame the Muslim Brotherhood, for obvious reasons, because that’s what [the government’s] narrative is: ‘We’re the bulwark against these loonies.’ But the Muslim Brotherhood said, ‘We didn’t ask people to go and demonstrate.’ It was really just people who were fed up.

The thing with Egypt is that earlier this year, there was a young man who was arrested, and he asked them, ‘Do you have a warrant?’ And because he dared to ask them. ‘Do you have a warrant?’ they took him to the police station, and they tortured him until he died. And he was just a young, regular man, not a part of any known political party, and there was the same kind of identification as you see in Tunisia with Muhamed Bouazizi. And so, this is what it’s looking like right now. These are just young people who are fed up.

Tomorrow is Friday, and the Muslim Brotherhood said it will join the protests, so things could change. But at the moment, it does seem like it’s a secular movement run by average people.