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Bouazizi has become a Tunisian protest 'symbol'

Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation on December 17 after authorities confiscated his produce triggered a wave of protests over unemployment that is still shaking Tunisia.

SIDI BOUZID, TUNISIA // The day started normally for Mohamed Bouazizi, 26, an impoverished vegetable-seller in this rural Tunisian town: shower, prayer and his pushcart. By midday he had doused himself in petrol outside the regional governor's office and set himself alight.

"He was my soul, my life, my heart," said his mother, Mannoubia Bouazizi. "Now he's a symbol."

Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation on December 17 after authorities confiscated his produce triggered a wave of protests over unemployment that is still shaking Tunisia, the worst unrest facing the president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali since he took power in 1987.

Yesterday Mr Ben Ali fired the interior minister, Rafik Belhaj Kacem, and ordered the release of people arrested so far during protests, save those proven guilty. An evening a curfew was imposed in Tunis, the capital, as soldiers were deployed there and in other areas that have seen clashes between protesters and police.

Tunisia has a growing economy and living standards often on par with western Europe, but has failed to curb 14 per cent official unemployment that is believed to approach double that number among young people.

Jobs are also most scarce in rural towns such as Sidi Bouzid, a strip of low houses and a handful of government offices along a high road in the country's agricultural heartland.

The region lacks key industrial infrastructure, while corrupt officials have long siphoned off state funding meant for development, said Rachid Fetini, a leading businessman in Sidi Bouzid and president of the orientation council at the Centre d'Affaire, a state agency supporting local entrepreneurs.

"For example, milk produced here must be sterilised in Tunis; a local milk factory would double our production," Mr Fetini said. "As for corruption, it's been particularly bad in Sidi Bouzid."

Regional officials could not be reached for comment. Yesterday the prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, said the government would investigate claims of official corruption.

Mohamed Bouazizi grew up in a white stuccoed house down a dirt road near the edge of Sidi Bouzid, one of seven siblings. From the age of 10, he worked selling vegetables in the street to help support his family.

"Mohamed hoped most to buy his own van," said his sister, Samia Bouazizi, 19. "But he wanted it for work, not for himself. Even his private dream was to help his family."

The family was drinking tea at home on Tuesday.

Sidi Bouzid has been under heightened security since the day last month when authorities confiscated Mohamed Bouazizi's vegetables, slapping his face in the process, according to the lawyer, Lotfi Tlili, who is representing the Bouazizi family.

Authorities have said that Mohamed Bouazizi lacked a required permit. However, no permit is needed to sell from a cart, said Hamdi Lazhar, the head of Sidi Bouzid's state office for employment and independent work. Siblings Salem and Samia Bouazizi accused authorities of trying to extort cash from their brother.

After the run-in, Mohamed Bouazizi apparently snapped: he quickly acquired petrol, drenched himself in it, and set himself alight in the town's main street before shocked observers.

"An ambulance took him away, and people starting gathering," said Mr Tlili, who was at the scene. "By the afternoon it was a demonstration, and the police intervened with clubs and tear gas."

Mohamed Bouazizi was later transferred to a hospital in Tunis, where he died last week from his burns. His family has filed a complaint against the Sidi Bouzid municipality for the alleged assault on him by authorities, Mr Tlili said.

Meanwhile, protests have rippled across Tunisia, captivating a generation that is following news of unrest via online networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook.

While few openly blame Mr Ben Ali for Tunisia's woes, the internet has buzzed with anonymous support for the Tunisian rapper, Hamada Ben-Amor, briefly arrested this month after releasing a song seen as an affront to the president.

Authorities say that 23 people have been killed so far as protesters have clashed with police, whom they say have only used force in self-defence or to protect lives and public property. Union officials quoted by wire services have put the death toll as high as 46.

"We don't agree with protesters resorting to violence," said Samia Bouazizi. "But we're with the people peacefully demanding their rights."

In Sidi Bouzid, locals are starting to demand answers from officials they say have spent years avoiding them.

"Before Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself, you'd never see a crowd like this in the street," said Mohamed Lamine Issaoui, 49, among dozens of unemployed massed outside the governor's office on Tuesday. "Today I'm here to tell the government I want social justice, and I want to work."

The government has pledged to improve industrial infrastructure and create funds to support local investors and entrepreneurs in rural areas, said Mr Lazhar.

Mr Fetini, meanwhile, said that he urged presidential advisers who visited Sidi Bouzid last month to investigate a former Sidi Bouzid governor, Faouzi Ben Arab, for corruption. Mr Ben Arab was fired last month from his post as governor of Jendouba, which he had held since last July.

It is unclear what effect the protests will ultimately have. But in Sidi Bouzid, optimism of a kind is emerging, said Mr Tlili.

"In Tunisia, we're used to lies," he said. "But people have hope in the popular pressure they're applying."

jthorne@thenational.ae

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