Protesters and security forces clash in Sidi Bouzid on December 20.
On Friday, December 17, a young fruit seller in his twenties attempted to set himself on fire in front of the Sidi Bouzid regional council in central Tunisia. Mohamed Bouazizi's act of desperation sparked a wave of revolt in the provincial town, one of the poorest in the country.
Over the weekend, several hundred youths smashed windows, damaged cars and fought with riot police in Sidi Bouzid, about 200 kms south-west of the capital, Tunis. Rioting reportedly resumed late on Monday, with hundreds of youths confronting police who used tear gas to try to disperse them. Some local people say the attempted immolation unleashed pent-up anger about the region's high unemployment rate, slow economic development and rampant corruption.
The Tunisian Web has been abuzz with comments as videos and photos of the riots emerged. This kind of footage – and the very existence of riots – is extremely rare in Tunisia, which for the past 23 years has been ruled with an iron fist by President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. State media initially denied the incidents, leaving Tunisians to rely on Twitter or activist blogs for information on the events in Sidi Bouzid.
On December 20, state media finally published an official response from the government, but without showing any footage of the riots. It quoted an official source calling the immolation a “painful” but “isolated” incident, and expressing “outrage at attempts to take it out of its context and exploit it for unhealthy political ends”.
Protesters in the streets of Sidi Bouzid.
Protesters burned tires in the streets. All photos published on Facebook by a group supporting Mohamed Bouazizi, the youth who set himself on fire.
“The regime’s own children are now turning against it”
Slimane Rouissi lives in Sidi Bouzid. He participated in the protest after Mohamed Bouazizi’s immolation attempt.
Mohamed Bouazizi’s attempted immolation in front of the regional government headquarters on Friday was the spark that set off the fire. The young man dropped out of school at a very young age (before high school) to help support his family of eight. His uncle had bought a small farm in R’gueb, near Sidi Bouzid, and his whole family moved there to work in the fields. But the farm was one of those shut down due to corrupt land appropriations in the region [see our article on the topic last July]. So Mohamed was forced to return to Sidi Bouzid to try to earn a living selling fruit and vegetables in the street.
Street vending is illegal in Tunisia, and city authorities regularly confiscated Mohamed’s small wheelbarrow of fruit. But Mohamed had no other option to try to make a living, and he bought his merchandise by getting into debt. It was a vicious circle. On Friday morning, he had contracted 300 dinars (130 euros) in debt for his goods. Police spotted him, confiscated his cart and reportedly mistreated him. Mohamed was desperate, so he went to regional government headquarters to try to plead his case with the governor. But he was thrown out and nobody would listen to him. It was at that point that the young man bought two bottles of paint solvent, poured them over himself and set himself on fire in front of the building.
Mohamed was immediately rushed to the hospital. He survived, but suffered severe burns on 70% of his body and is still in intensive care.
Clearly, authorities have opted to deal with the situation through repression
This sad incident sparked a wave of anger within the population. Other street vendors dumped their goods in front of the regional government's headquarters in protest, and hundreds of people gathered in front of the building. At one point the protesters tried to storm the building but were held at bay.
The national police chief was dispatched to Sidi Bouzid on Friday evening. The following day a peaceful march was organised in memory of Mohamed, but police shot tear gas to disperse the crowd. That’s when things turned violent. Groups of protesters began clashing with policemen; others set up barricades and burned cars. Around 50 people were arrested. Many of those who were later set free say they were tortured by police.
Police reinforcements arrived on Sunday, including over 100 police on motorcycles and police trucks. Clearly, authorities have opted to deal with the situation through repression, instead of sending officials to start a dialogue with us locals.
What most struck me in these riots was the fact that most of those who went out to protest were youths born after 1987 [the year Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali became president]. All they have known is the Ben Ali presidency. These are the children of the regime, and they are turning against it.”
Prostests in front of the regional government headquarters on Friday, December 17.
Protesters attempt to storm the building by climbing over the fence.
Clashes between protesters and police on December 18.
Clashes went on during the night between December 19 and December 20.
Article written with Sarra Grira, France 24 journalist.