Protesters and Police Clash in Tunisia Following Self-Immolation

Unrest spreads as concern over economic conditions gets ugly

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Week-long protests in Tunisia over the government's poor handling of the economy are escalating after security forces fired into a crowd of protesters, killing at least one. The protest movement began in the city of Sidi Bouzid, where a young man named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest after police confiscated the fruits and vegetables he sold from a street stall. Bouzazi reportedly climbed a high-voltage electricity tower and shouted "no for misery, no for unemployment," before touching the wire. Another man, Nagi Felhi, later followed his example.

Though Tunisia's relative prosperity has made it one of North Africa's more peaceful states, the autocratic government is notorious for restricting political freedoms. The ongoing protests have come to incorporate long-held complaints in Tunisia over free speech restrictions, especially in the media and online, and over the 2009 election, which was marred with international observer allegations of government abuse. Here's what's happening in Tunisia and what Tunisia-watchers say it means.

  • Strikes and Protests Spread Across Tunisia  Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram reports that "peaceful strikes over unemployment and other social demands" are spreading. "Government officials, however, confronted the mass demonstrations in the cities on Friday when security forces opened fire on protesters leaving one person dead. In Kairouan city, 150 km south of Tunis City, riot police clashed with protesters on Sunday night leaving an unknown number of protesters injured and transferred to hospitals."
  • Self-Immolation Sparks Public Outrage  Global Voices' Lina Ben Mhenni writes, "Tunisian netizens seized the incident to complain about the lack of jobs, corruption and deteriorating human rights conditions in their country." She tells the story of Mohamed Bouazizi:
Being the only breadwinner in his family, he decided to earn a living and with his family’s help, he started selling fruit and vegetable from a street stall. His venture gave him very little, enough to guarantee the dignity of his family. But city hall officials were on the look out, and have seized his goods several times. He tried to explain to them that what he was doing was not his choice that he was just trying to survive. Each time, his goods were confiscated, he was also insulted and asked to leave the city hall premises. The last time this happened, Mohamed lost all hope in this life and decided to leave it forever. He poured gasoline on himself and set himself on fire.
  • Tunisian Police Crack Down, Worsening Stand-Off  "No breakthroughs are expected in the coming days due to the repressive practices of the Tunisian government," Al-Masra Al-Youm writes. Eyewitnesses report arrests, while
many local homes and shops ... have reportedly been looted by security agents. ... In a statement, Tunisia’s Democratic Progressive Party said that party member Wessam al-Saghir had been assaulted by plainclothes police officers for taking part in a peaceful demonstration in Muhammad Ali al-Hami Square. The statement went on to allege that police had raided the home of another party member in Safaqis before beating him and disabling his Internet connection.
It deserves mention that Tunisia, often cited as one of the most prosperous and "open" economies and societies in Africa and the Arab world, is also one of the most efficiently run police states on the Mediterranean basin (Issandr el-Amrani once described it as a country run by the police and for the police, or something like that). But Tunisians are generally well educated, industrious if relatively mild mannered; they suffer the same stereotype that is often applied to Egyptians in regard to political passivity. Tunisia’s government mixes clientelism with swift repression and the finest Euro-American public relations consultancies.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.