Slap to a Man’s Pride Set Off Tumult in Tunisia

Moises Saman for The New York Times

Unemployed men in a cafe in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. Protests in the impoverished town helped lead to a change of government.

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SIDI BOUZID, Tunisia — Mohamed Bouazizi spent his whole life on a dusty, narrow street here, in a tiny, three-room house with a concrete patio where his mother hung the laundry and the red chilis to dry. By the time Mr. Bouazizi was 26, his work as a fruit vendor had earned him just enough money to feed his mother, uncle and five brothers and sisters at home. He dreamed about owning a van.

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Moises Saman for The New York Times

A road under construction in the town of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, about 200 miles south of Tunis. The town is considered poor even by the standards of the nation.

Faida Hamdy, a 45-year-old municipal inspector in Sidi Bouzid, a police officer’s daughter, was single, had a “strong personality” and an unblemished record, her supervisor said. She inspected buildings, investigated noise complaints and fined vendors like Mr. Bouazizi, whose itinerant trade may or may not have been legal; no one seems to know.

On the morning of Dec. 17, when other vendors say Ms. Hamdy tried to confiscate Mr. Bouazizi’s fruit, and then slapped him in the face for trying to yank back his apples, he became the hero — now the martyred hero — and she became the villain in a remarkable swirl of events in which Tunisians have risen up to topple a 23-year dictatorship and march on, demanding radical change in their government.

The revolution has rippled beyond Tunisia, shaking other authoritarian Arab states, whose frustrated young people are often written off as complacent when faced with stifling bureaucracy and an impenetrable and intimidating security apparatus. That assumption was badly shaken with Mr. Bouazizi’s reaction to his slap, and now a picture of him, in a black jacket with a wry smile, has become the revolution’s icon.

In a series of interviews, the other fruit vendors, officials and family members described the seemingly routine confrontation that had set off a revolution. They said that Mr. Bouazizi, embarrassed and angry, had wrestled with Ms. Hamdy and was beaten by two of her colleagues, who also took his electronic scale. He walked a few blocks to the municipal building, demanded his property, and was beaten again, they said. Then he walked to the governor’s office, demanded an audience and was refused.

“She humiliated him,” said his sister, Samia Bouazizi. “Everyone was watching.”

Sometime around noon, in the two-lane street in front of the governor’s high gate, the vendor drenched himself in paint thinner then lit himself on fire. A doctor at the hospital where he was treated said the burns covered 90 percent of his body. By the time he died on Jan. 4, protests that started over Mr. Bouazizi’s treatment in Sidi Bouzid had spread to cities throughout the country.

On Jan. 14, the president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, fled the country.

People in Sidi Bouzid use the words “impossible” or “miracle” to describe the events of the last month. But they also say that what transpired was much more likely here, in this impoverished, agrarian central Tunisian city, with a history of resistance to colonial rule and nothing to lose.

The country’s official unemployment rate is 14 percent, concentrated among young people, but the rate is much higher in Sidi Bouzid, say local union leaders, who put it at higher than 30 percent. Neglected by successive central governments, bereft of factories, seized with corruption and rife with nepotism, Sidi Bouzid and the small towns surrounding it are filled with idle young men, jobless, underemployed or just plain poor.

Some of them pass the time at cafes playing a card game called rami. Others get drunk on the moonshine they buy at cigarette stands and stumble around Sidi Bouzid’s town center, near the mosque where Mr. Bouazizi sometimes parked his fruit cart.

The nearest movie theater is 80 miles away.

There are jobs at a toy factory, one of the two biggest plants in town, but they pay only about $50 a month. People with college degrees head for the more affluent coastal cities or settle for less.

Wassim Lassoued, who has a master’s degree in physics, works part time in an Internet cafe. “Five years ago, lots of money was sent here to establish new businesses,” he said. “That money disappeared.”

Mr. Ben Ali rarely visited Sidi Bouzid, and when he did, local politicians paved roads and arranged for the planting of fully-grown trees to hide their neglect. On the edge of town, there is a gleaming youth center with fenced-off skateboard ramps that appear untouched. Residents said no one uses the center, which is reserved for people with connections.

Hichem Marouani contributed reporting.

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