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.