Tunisia: Street vendor’s attempted suicide sparks riots and police shootings

Lack of freedom and mass unemployment stoke up revolt

Over the last few days, Tunisian youths have clashed with police, in riots sparked by anger over unemployment in the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid.

The nightly disturbances started after an unemployed graduate set himself alight in a protest against police officers who confiscated fruit and vegetable he was selling from a market stall. There were clashes last Monday when youth held protests to demand the release of dozens of people arrested earlier.

Any form of opposition is rare in Tunisia under the repressive rule of President Zein Al Abidine ben Ali. Although Tunisia’s economy is expected to grow by 3.8% in 2010, it will make little difference to the 14% jobless figure, which fires much of the protests and riots.

Below, a CWI member, S.R., who recently visited Tunisia, reports on the clashes over the last few days.


Large clashes took place in Tunisia between youth and state security forces on 25 December. These are the biggest protests since action by miners in Redeyef in 2008. The new protests were triggered when on17 December, in the central town of Sidi Bouzid, Mohamed Bou’azizi, a street vendor of cheap plastic toys/ vegetables was asked by the police for a permit to sell. He replied that he had a diploma and wanted to have a skilled job instead. The police confiscated Mohamed Bou’azizi’s goods and assaulted him. Mohamed Bou’azizi then bought gasoline with his last money and attempted to commit suicide by burning himself alive in front of the Sidi Bouzid City Hall.

Since then, there have been daily demonstrations in the small town, which soon spread to neighboring cities. The 25th December saw a demonstration in Menzel Bouzaiene, during which riots broke out, police cars were set on fire, and the police shot 18-year old Mohamed Ammari and seventeen others were seriously injured. Families were prevented from seeing their relatives in the hospitals and the city was sealed off. No one was allowed to go in or out of the city and telephone and water and electricity was cut off.

On 26 December, there were attempted solidarity demonstrations in Tunis, Gabes and Sfax cities. People gathered in the trade union offices but heavily armed policemen would not let them leave the buildings and hold protests.

On 28 December, there were reports of demonstrations in the capital, Tunis, and five other cities, even on the small fisherman’s island of Qarqannah.

Lack of freedoms

Demonstrations are rarely seen in the virtual police state of Tunisia (the country has 400,000 police, including national guard and secret police, in a country with a population of 10 million). During the time was I there, no-one had seen a demonstration before. No-one would not speak about the rule of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, even in private. He has been in office for 23 years. His pictures are everywhere on the streets, in cafes and in shops. No meaningful opposition is allowed. The internet is censored, with the same blocking mechanisms that are used as in China and Iran. Many websites are not accessible and pictures on Facebook showing Mohamed Bou’azizi burning himself in protest were replaced by a picture of the president!

The people I spoke to were deeply frustrated with the lack of freedoms – and that was mainly in more or less the wealthy parts of the country, let alone the poorer south. Many youth see their only prospects lie in leaving the country and many have illusions in getting a better life in Europe. But visas are hard to obtain, with the EU states closing their borders to Tunisia. In the countryside, unemployment is very high. National joblessness sits at 18% and as these are government figures, the real situation is much worse. Years of privatizations, nepotism and corruption have made the President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his elite friends richer, while destroying the future of the youth.

The government will try to suppress the opposition movement developing. There are reports of police raiding homes at night. It is important to encourage working people and youth to continue their fight for freedom and jobs. Send solidarity messages to the UGTT trade union (www.ugtt.org.tn) and send protests to your nearest Tunisian embassy.

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December 2010