News / Middle East

One Man’s Act Triggers Watershed Events in Tunisia

In this photo released 28 Dec 2010 by the Tunisian President's office, Tunisia's President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, second from left, visits Mohamed Bouazizi, a young man who set himself on fire after police confiscated fruit and vegetables he sold withou
In this photo released 28 Dec 2010 by the Tunisian President's office, Tunisia's President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, second from left, visits Mohamed Bouazizi, a young man who set himself on fire after police confiscated fruit and vegetables he sold withou



It has been two weeks since a young man named Mohamed Bouazizi doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire in the southern Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid. This, after police confiscated his market stall, the sole source of income for Bouazizi and his family. The incident sparked anti-government protests and clashes with police across the country. It has also highlighted the growing problem of unemployment in Tunisia, which the World Bank estimates at just under 15 percent, more than double the 6.4 percent rate for other middle income countries.

Recent university graduates are among those most affected. The World Bank says 46 percent of educated youths are still unemployed a year and a half after graduating. Dr. Larbi Sadiki, a senior lecturer in Middle East politics at Britain’s University of Exeter and author of The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourse, told VOA’s Cecily Hilleary he believes the unrest signals that Tunisians are beginning to lose their fear of the government of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

Listen to the full interview with Larbi Sadiki:

Hilleary: The protests coincide with the release of WikiLeaks about Tunisia diplomatic cables which, among other things, describe an excess of wealth in the presidential family. Is there a correlation?

Larbi Sadiki believes that the self-immolation of Bouazizi was an event that could trigger bigger changes in Tunesia
Larbi Sadiki believes that the self-immolation of Bouazizi was an event that could trigger bigger changes in Tunesia

Sadiki: I think the WikiLeaks moment is an important moment in that it brought to the fore what people have already suspected about corruption within the ruling family in Tunisia.

But I think essentially the protest has been sparked by disaffection. People basically need bread. They need employment. It raises questions about the kind of education Tunisia has got in place; about mal-distribution, about the “slicing of the cake,” as it were - who’s getting what, where, in Tunisia.

Hilleary: And who is getting “what, where?”

Sadiki: That is really the question. I think historically, the South has been neglected. And this is not uniquely, to be fair to [President Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali and his people, the mistake of current regime.  From the time of independence, if you take, for instance, the example of central phosphates basin towns: There is lots of production of phosphates. Phosphates were basically sold in the international market.

But the huge financial outlays were not directed for development within those areas. They were directed to development in the coastal areas in the North.  That created a huge gap between North and South. You know the cliché “North-South divide” is really nicely mapped out in Tunisia…and the government has not really done much to level the playing field.

Hilleary: Unemployment is a tremendous problem in Tunisia. The World Bank sets it at around 15 percent overall and higher among youth. Are these figures accurate?

Sadiki: I think in some places, it could probably be as much as much as 30, 35 percent in the South, where people really have got nothing. Of course, Tunisia has invested so much in tourism, but tourism today actually is only partly Tunisian-owned, and I think this is a big problem. The [bulk] of the profits [does] not stay in Tunisia. They create some employment - there’s lots of cheap labor, but there is not actually reinvestment of the proceeds from tourism into Tunisia to create more jobs for the youth.

And there’s also the educational system, …if you have 70 to 85 thousand graduates every year from different universities - highly skilled labor - but there’s no labor market to absorb these huge numbers.

Hilleary: Do you see President Ben Ali weakening?

Sadiki: Definitely. There is an amazing image and for me, this is the picture of 2010 in Tunisia: [President Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali visiting [Mohamed] Bouazizi in a Tunis hospital - the young man who doused himself in petrol, who sparked the riots.

And it was really a powerful moment, because here we have a patient, a man basically bandaged, probably dying - we don’t really know yet; he’s seriously burned and the president’s looking at him. I mean, I just feel the president is really looking at Tunisia, Tunisian society. It’s tempting to say the caption for this, “Who is the patient?” Is it the regime, the body politic of Tunisia? Or is it actually the victim, Bouazizi? It’s an incredible moment.

NEW: Follow our Middle East reports on Twitter
and discuss them on our Facebook page.

You May Like

Tired of Waiting, South Africans Demand Change ‘Now’

With chronic poverty and lack of basic services largely fueling recent xenophobic attacks, many in Rainbow Nation say it’s time for government to act More

Challenges Ahead for China's Development Plans in Pakistan

Planned $46 billion in energy and infrastructure investments in Pakistan are aimed at transforming the country into a regional hub for trade and investment More

Audio 'Forbidden City' Revisits Little Known Era of Asian-American Entertainment

Little-known chapter of entertainment history captured in 80s documentary is revisited in new digitally remastered format and book More

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populationsi
April 24, 2015 10:13 PM
A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.

Video Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populations

A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.

Video Data Servers Could Heat Private Homes

As every computer owner knows, when their machines run a complex program they get pretty hot. In fact, cooling the processors can be expensive, especially when you're dealing with huge banks of computer servers. But what if that energy could heat private homes? VOA’s George Putic reports that a Dutch energy firm aims to do just that.

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.

VOA Blogs