The youth whose self-immolation triggered the recent protests in Tunisia has died from his burns. Twenty-six year-old Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in mid-December after police confiscated his market stall in the southern city of Sidi Bouzid. Selling fruit and vegetables had been the sole source of income for the university graduate and his family. The incident set off widespread and unprecedented protests in cities across Tunisia—and across the internet.
VOA spoke with Lina Ben Mhenni, a Tunisian linguistics teacher and activist who maintains a Facebook page and Twitter feed, as well as the blog “A Tunisian Girl.” Though censored in her own country, her web pages and similar sites like them have been a primary source of news and information for journalists and observers outside the country. Existing restrictions in Tunisia have not deterred her.
“Everything is blocked here,” she says. “I use a proxy to access my blog, my Facebook profile, and …they censored my Twitter account. It is not accessible in Tunisia.”
Ben Mhenni says Tunisians are angry, and she believes the protests are a sign that frustration over joblessness now outweighs any fears of government reprisal. “People are protesting the lack of freedoms,” she says. “For example, in Tunisia, you cannot express yourself. There are thousands and thousands of graduates who can’t find jobs. Life is very expensive.”
According to media watchdog Reporters without Borders, since the protests began last month, the government of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has cracked down on social networking sites harder than ever before, especially Facebook, which has around 2 million users in Tunisia alone.
Ben Mhenni admits she is nervous. She says that last week, a fellow cyber-dissident was arrested; she says she has been followed and “verbally harassed” by police officers. She believes she could be arrested at any time.
“But you know,” she says, “I believe in what I do. I think that we have to tell what is happening here. I’m convinced [of] what I’m doing…. If we want things to change, we have to make sacrifices.”