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Protests Shake Tunisia as Suicide Emerges as Symbol of Economic Distress

Riots have spread across the North African country of Tunisia, as the suicide of an unemployed man 10 days ago has emerged as a symbol of the economic angst that has overtaken a country hailed as a model for modernization and development.

The unrest erupted December 17 in the city of Sidi Bouzid, 200 kilometers (124 miles) south of the capital, when Muhammad Bouazizi, a 26-year-old fruit vendor, set himself on fire after police confiscated his merchandise. The protests spread to the capital by last weekend, as Bouazizi, a university graduate unable to find a job, quickly became a national symbol of rampant unemployment. Heavy-handed police response inflamed protestors.

The economy grew an average of almost 5% over the past decade, but it slowed in 2008 and 2009 as import demand from Europe slumped. The International Monetary Fund forecasts economic growth will recover somewhat to reach 3.8% this year, but that is not fast enough to create jobs for the country’s fast-growing population. Ordinary people say they don’t share in the benefits of the growing economy. 

Tunisia’s unemployment rate is a high 13.3% and among younger people the rate is even higher. In any case, many observers say the official forecasts understate the extent of joblessness.
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