Dead Tunisian fruit and vegetable seller could unleash wave of revolutions in Africa

Tunis (Tunisia), Jan.17: Fruit and vegetable seller Mohammed Bouazizi, who burnt himself in the center of Tunis after police confiscated his produce because he ahd no permit, is today seen as a hero by the people of Tunisia.

Not just to his nation, but across the 'gendarmerie' states of North Africa.

For that agonising act of self-immolation sparked something remarkable: a wave of protests that, for the first time in recent memory, felled a leader in the Arab world.

Courageous protesters withstood bullets, beatings and bloodshed to oust a loathed president who had made their lives a misery while growing rich at their expense.

The grievances in Tunisia are similar to those elsewhere in North Africa: Rising prices, repression, grotesque corruption and unemployment.

It is impossible to over-estimate the importance of this moment. Tunisia may be a small country of just ten million people, but the shock waves are being felt far away.

A clutch of ageing despots in countries such as Egypt, Libya, Jordan and Algeria will be wondering nervously if they can prevent a rising tide of anger from turning into a wave of revolutions, just as in eastern Europe in 1989.

The consequences could be profound.

The Tunisian protests began in Bouazizi's home of Sidi Bouzid, a struggling rural town that feels a long way from the tourist beaches.

The president Ben Ali responded with his usual tricks - first a brutal crackdown, then empty promises of change - as unrest spread.

But the Tunisians had had enough of his lies and corruption.

Schools and universities were closed, adding to the numbers on the streets despite a growing death toll - far higher than the official tally of 70.

Finally, on Friday, Ali fled with his hated wife to Saudi Arabia.

Few would have predicted such a sudden uprising. Tunisia was seen as a stable country in an unstable region, long held in the iron grip of a man who had thwarted any threat from Islamists or other rivals.

But behind the images on the tourist posters lay a land of raging unemployment and repression.

Ben Ali seized power in 1987 presenting himself as a liberal democrat. Instead, as civil war exploded in neighbouring Algeria, he turned Tunisia into a nastily efficient police state, with one police officer for every 40 adults and more journalists jailed than in any other Arab country.

At the same time he promoted secularism, outlawing Islamic parties and banning the headscarf. Women wear jeans, young couples hold hands in the street and there are female professors of theology.

This made him a valuable ally for the West in its misguided 'War on Terror', allowing him to tighten the screws without fear of rebuke abroad.

But as in many North African states, anger was rising.

Bouazizi is a fitting symbol of the revolution. The official unemployment rate is 14 per cent but in reality it is far higher.

One in three graduates are estimated to be without jobs. And while they struggle to find work, with food prices, the former first family plundered the country.

The grievances in Tunisia are similar to those elsewhere in north Africa: rising prices, repression, grotesque corruption and unemployment. There have been smaller protests in Algeria, Morocco, Egypt and Algeria, and thousands were on the streets of Jordan yesterday angry at food costs.

Adding to this combustible mix is the threat of Islamists. Arab autocrats, often aided by the West, have kept the lid on extremists but excluded moderate religious parties from power.

Copyright Asian News International/