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How revolt sparked to life in Tunisia

One of the most repressive Arab regimes, Tunisia was thought to be less prone to revolt than its neighbors. But economic, social, political, and demographic currents converged to create a combustible atmosphere.

By Correspondent / January 23, 2011

Protesters from Tunisia's poor rural heartlands demonstrated in the capital on Sunday to demand that the revolution they started against the repressive Arab regime should now sweep the remnants of the fallen president's old guard from power.

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

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Sidi bouzid and Tunis, Tunisia

If Tunisia seemed an unlikely place for a revolution, the dusty provincial town of Sidi Bouzid might have seemed the unlikeliest epicenter of a quake that would rock the Arab world.

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It lies in Tunisia's interior, far from the glittering coastal resort towns that now attract more than 6.5 million tourists every year. On the three-hour drive from cosmopolitan Tunis, the rolling verdant hills of olive groves give way to a flat expanse of rocky soil broken by cactus hedges.

It was in this small city, where paint peels off the low-rise buildings and dozens of young men loiter on the sidewalks and in cafes, that the revolution began.

On Dec. 17, Mohamed Bouazizi – a young man whose fruit and vegetable cart had been taken by police for lack of a permit – stood in front of the peach-colored wall of the local governor's office, poured gasoline over himself, and struck a match.

His self-immolation might have gone unnoticed, or led to a few protests before being crushed by Tunisia's police state.

Instead, Mr. Bouazizi's act ignited demonstrations that spread throughout Tunisia's interior, and then to the capital. The government's violent crackdown, broadcast through social media, fueled public anger. Less than a month later, the mass popular uprising forced one of the Arab world's strongest autocrats to his knees. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, shattering the silence he had imposed on Tunisians for 23 years.

"Since this revolution happened, today we can speak," says Bouazizi's sister Samya, a young woman whose blue hijab frames tired brown eyes. "We are no longer afraid of the police. Those who are studying may have the chance of finding a job without having to go through all the corruption.... The whole system is corrupt, and with this new Tunisia, I hope all that will change."

Few had predicted that Tunisia was ripe for such an uprising. But under the surface, economic, social, political, and demographic currents were converging to create a combustible atmosphere. With a growing population of educated and aspiring youths, declining economic opportunity, ever-growing political repression, and a corrupt ruling family as the focal point for public anger, all Tunisia needed was a spark.

Many educated, but few jobs

If Bouazizi's act was startling, his despair was not. Despite a growing economy, Tunisia had failed its citizens. The founder of Tunisia's republic, Habib Bourguiba, built a strong education system that delivered university-educated young people on the doorstep of a society that was not ready to receive them. In an economy based on tourism and unskilled labor, the rate of unemployed university graduates steadily grew.

In the past seven years, their number has more than tripled from between 60,000 and 70,000 to more than 200,000, estimates Mahmoud Ben Romdhane, an opposition politician and an economics professor at the University of Tunis.

The regime wasn't living up to its end of the social compact it had struck with citizens, in which Tunisians would sacrifice their freedom of expression, association, and political participation in exchange for prosperity and stability. The prosperity was fading, and nowhere as fast as in Sidi Bouzid, which carried the added burden of being in the interior, which is much less developed than the coast.

Today, the young unemployed in Sidi Bouzid do not aimlessly direct their anger at a bad economy. They have a specific target for their vitriol: the family of Mr. Ben Ali.

Tunisia in brief

This Berber land was occupied over the centuries by Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Spaniards, Ottoman Turks, and finally the French. It became an independent nation in 1956.

• How big it is

Slightly smaller than Wisconsin, with roughly the same population as Beijing (10.6 million).

• Who lives there

Mostly Muslims; 1 percent are Christians; 74.3 percent are literate, and 2 out of 3 live in an urban area.

• Who's in charge

Has had only two presidents: Habib Bourguiba, who ruled for 31 years, and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who took power in a 1987 coup. Legislature: an appointed Chamber of Advisers and an elected Chamber of Deputies.

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