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.
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"Why don't I have a job?" asked one young man standing on the street. "Because I would have to pay people connected to the president's family to receive one. They take everything from us, and give us nothing. Sidi Bouzid is neglected, and his filthy family was getting rich while we starve."Skip to next paragraph
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During Ben Ali's rule, Tunisians watched his family enrich itself, growing ever more powerful as it took over business interests. Dr. Romdhane, a leading member of the Ettajdid opposition party, says the family's wealth grab spiked in the past five years as family members snapped up foreign-car dealerships, banks, and public television stations. Ordinary Tunisians often find that they have to pay a bribe, maybe 2,000 to 5,000 dinar ($1,400 to $3,500), to the right connection in order to find work.
It was in these circumstances that Bouazizi, whose father died when Bouazizi was a toddler, found himself selling produce in the market to make ends meet.
When police confiscated Bouazizi's cart, and a female municipal employee hit him, he petitioned the governor for redress. He was refused, and the humiliation was apparently the final straw.
His suicide on Dec. 17 sparked protests in Sidi Bouzid, led mainly by young people who burned tires and clashed with police. On Dec. 22, another young man in the city reportedly yelled, "No to misery! No to unemployment!" before electrocuting himself to death. The protests soon spread to other towns in Tunisia's interior.
On Dec. 27, they reached the capital.
Fired up by Facebook, Twitter
Social media played a crucial role in spreading news of the uprising, which was not mentioned on Tunisian TV until nearly two weeks after it started. Ben Ali's government was a master of Web censorship, but Tunisians are professionals at getting around it. They exchanged proxy servers and posted images of alleged massacres online, further enraging the population.
Soufiane Chourabi, a journalist for the Tarik Al Jadid newspaper, was one of the first to begin documenting the uprising in Tunisia's interior. The rapid spread of information online was a key reason that the rest of the country joined in Sidi Bouzid's revolt.
When Tunisians saw images of fellow citizens rebelling, they lost their fear, he says. He credits the videos of youths tearing down ubiquitous photos of Tunisia's autocrat as a psychological turning point.
"They needed someone to do that simple thing of taking down the picture of Ben Ali, and that was it. That released them," Mr. Chourabi says. "When Ben Ali's symbol fell, there was no fear. This picture of the big and strong Ben Ali collapsed."
Ibrahim Ben Slama, a university student in Tunis, says he first heard of Bouazizi's self-immolation on Facebook, which was used to plan many of the protests.
He's a member of Tunisia's strong middle class, and says part of the reason the protests spread to Tunis was that the urban middle class could identify with the anger felt in the interior. They coupled their political frustrations with the economic frustrations of Sidi Bouzid, and the entire country rose up in solidarity.
"This time, with Bouazizi, it was the entire frustrations of everyone in Tunisia," he says. "They weren't just asking for jobs; they were also protesting the political problems.... Everyone is facing these problems, so they got out to make their voices heard."
Police fuel anger by killing protesters
Tunisia was now in a state of rebellion, but not necessarily an uncontrollable one. A key turning point came, however, when the police began opening fire on crowds. On Dec. 24, the first protesters were killed by police bullets. In a particularly egregious incident two weeks later, police fired into crowds of demonstrators in Kasserine and Tala, killing at least 10 protesters.
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.