Friday, 14 January 2011

Chaos around the Mediterranean

The explosion of violence this week in Tunisia, the smallest and most affluent country of North Africa, is just the latest unrest to affect the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. From East to West and North to South, the region seems to be on the brink of becoming a hot zone for political crisis.

Rolling riots have broken out against Tunisia's authoritarian president, and the government has cracked down on the protests in such a violent way that the country appears to be headed for political collapse. Across the sea, the government of Lebanon collapsed on Wednesday, and the situation threatens to descend into violence as the various factions vie for control.

Not too far away in Greece, the country is still reeling from massive protests against the government's austerity cuts that have been forced by the debt crisis that has plunged the country into political and financial chaos. And at the western end of the sea, Spain continues to face protests over its own austerity cuts in response to its debt crisis, and the country hangs by a thread as it desperately tries to avoid financial collapse.

And at the centre Italy may be the next Mediterranean country to collapse into chaos. At the end of last year the scandal-plagued government of Silvio Berlusconi barely survived an attempt to unseat him, and it is thought his government is so weak it can't possibly survive longer than a few months. Yesterday the country's constitutional court struck down Berlusconi's law making him immune from prosecution, which will only add pressure on the prime minister to leave as the many corruption cases pending against him go back to court.

In the most high-profile one, which police just announced today will go forward, the prime minister stands accused of participating in teenage prostitution. But if Berlusconi goes there is no politician in Italy who is prepared to replace him, meaning the country could descend into political chaos that could also spark a run on its debt. It is partly fear of this scenario that has kept Berlusconi in power despite his increasingly outrageous behavior.

What could this geographic clustering of political and economic chaos mean for the Mediterranean region? That isn't quite clear, particularly given ties between the sea's Christian and Islamic shores are not exactly close. But it is certainly an area to watch, particularly in relations between Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. And given that Tunisia and Italy are seperated by just 166 km of sea, the brewing conflict happening in Tunia is one that the EU will be watching with a wary eye.

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