Tunisians took to the streets in late December to protest against high food prices, limited political and social freedom, unemployment and government corruption. That quartet of factors had been as much a part of their lives as the 23-year rule of former President Zain Al Abidine Ben Ali.
Initially, their aim was to see their government remedy their grievances. But that aim changed on Jan. 5 because of a man named Mohamed Bouazizi.
Bouazizi, a vegetable vendor in Tunis, woke up as usual that morning to sell his vegetables. However, in order to continue selling his vegetables, he had to constantly bribe council officers.
That day, when the officers came to Bouazizi to demand their customary bribe, he refused to give them anything. The police then proceeded to confiscate his vegetables.
Bouzazi’s attempts to reacquire his goods or get a hearing from the governor of the state were met with brutality from the police. Four police officers repeatedly beat him up. Bouazizi then bought a bottle of petrol, poured it all on himself and set himself on fire.
The self-immolation showed Tunisians the direness of their situation. Armed with songs and pictures of the martyr Bouazizi, they took to the streets again. Neither police brutality nor a heightened state-imposed curfew could stop them. The protests resulted in the ouster of Ben Ali, who then fled to Saudi Arabia.
The task of spearheading the Tunisian transition from an authoritarian state to a more democratic one was left to the prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, who named a new interim unity government.
The government is now comprised of labor union representatives and opposition leaders but has also kept some ministers from Ben Ali’s Democratic Constitutional Rally Party (RCD). The RCD has retained such key ministries as Defense, Foreign and Internal Affairs.
More demonstrations and protests against the interim government followed as the Tunisians demanded a “true democracy” with no elements from the Ben Ali party – including Ghannouchi. Several ministers from RCD, opposition parties and labor representatives have since resigned from the interim government.
Earlier this week, protesters continued to camp in Ghannouchi’s home demanding his resignation. Ghannouchi has promised to quit after elections, which are expected in the next six months.
The commander of Tunisia’s armed forces has expressed his reservations about calls for Ghannouchi to quit before the elections.
He said that such a move would create a power vacuum that could be filled by another dictatorial regime.
Normal business has yet to resume in Tunisia and over 50 people are believed to have died since the demonstrations began.
The Tunisian protests have inspired similar ones in the neighboring countries whose citizens have relatively similar grievances as the Tunisians. Two people have set themselves alight, Bouazizi-style, in Algeria where protests have occurred, albeit of a lower magnitude than Tunisia’s.
In Egypt, Jan. 25 was declared a “day of revolt” and despite the government outlawing protests and warnings from the police, the Egyptians took to the streets to protest against President Hosni Mubarak’s government. The protests were mainly organized through Facebook.
To some degree, Jordan, Libya and Morocco have also had protests and unrest.