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Protests Shake Tunisia as Suicide Emerges as Symbol of Economic Distress

Provincial unrest reaches the capital amid worries about unemployment

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.

Hundreds of Tunisians gathered outside the labor union headquarters in the capital Tunis on Sunday and Monday, following a campaign of late-night arrests by Tunisian security forces. On Saturday, night clashes between police and demonstrators broke out in the towns of Al-Ragab and Maknasi in central Tunisia. 

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.

"People in Tunisia don’t have opportunities and don’t believe the government," Hend Harouni, an unemployed Tunisian English teacher, told The Media Line.

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.

Harouni said demonstrations began in the impoverished south and center of the country where unemployment rates are higher, but the cause was taken up by residents of the capital as an act of solidarity. "People have had enough," she said. "They want concrete solutions to unemployment, not empty promises."

Ali Bouazizi, a resident of Sidi Bouzid and relative of Muhammad whose suicide sparked the riots, said the man’s plight represented that of many young Tunisians.

"He felt humiliated and marginalized, and that’s what pushed him to take this action," Bouazizi told The Media Line. "All the youth here, in the central areas of Tunisia, are marginalized and unemployed. The money exists in the coastal cities."

Ali Bouazizi graduated with a law degree from a local university in 1997, but couldn’t find work in his field. He is self-employed and is a member of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), a movement in opposition to President Zayn Al-Abidin Bin-Ali.

Muhammad Al-Juwayni, the development minister, traveled to Sidi Bouzid last Thursday, promising a government $15 million employment program. But many Tunisians say this is too little too late.

"This $15 million is barely enough to buy two villas in the rich areas of Tunis," Bouazizi said bitterly, referring to the country’s oligarchy, perceived as controlling the country riches. 

"So far the government has refused to negotiate with civil society," Masoud Ramadani, a human rights activist, told The Media Line. "As long as there is such deep imbalance in regional employment, demonstrations are sure to continue."

Ramadani said demonstrations have spread to six or seven Tunisian cities, focusing on two demands: more equitable employment opportunities and cessation of the security siege of the city of Sidi Bouzid.

Tunisia’s official news outlets have barely covered the demonstrations, preferring on Monday to focus on the return home of the country’s swimming champion. No numbers of arrests or injured have been released by the government. Hend Harouni said she receives her news from French and Arab satellite channels, as well as Internet sites such as Youtube which have captured videos of the demonstrations.

"You can’t find any facts on Tunisian television," she said. "The news is always presented from the government’s point of view."

Ramadani, the human rights activists, said he was especially saddened by government censorship of events.

"We hear almost nothing in the media. As human rights activists this pains us," he said.

But Ali Bouazizi said he believed the mobilization of youth in Sidi Bouzid has gradually forced the government to address some of the protestors’ demands and let local media thonestly report events.

"The government was embarrassed by the exposure in world media, and has begun acting more objectively," Bouazizi told The Media Line. "Now, even in our local press, everything has become clear. They can hide nothing any longer." 

Tunisia’s 74-year-old president, Bin-Ali, has ruled for 23 years. His recent attempt to change the constitution to allow him a sixth five-year term in office has angered many Tunisians, who circulated an online petition titled "no to prolongation and no to inheritance".

Accusations of corruption and nepotism have come to the fore in a recently revealed diplomatic cable sent by the American Ambassador to Tunisia last year.

"Tunisia is a police state with little freedom of expression or association and serious human rights problems," Ambassador Robert F. Godec wrote in a State Department correspondence in July 2009, revealed by Wikileaks.

"President Ben Ali… and his regime have lost touch with the Tunisian people … as a consequence; the risks to the regime’s long-term stability are increasing."