'Keep up the fight', urges sister of Tunisia's street vendor Bouazizi

'Keep up the fight', urges sister of Tunisia's street vendor Bouazizi
Mohamed Bouazizi doused himself in petrol and set himself alight a decade ago, triggering a string of historic protests across the Arab world.
4 min read
07 December, 2020
Bouazizi set himself alight and triggered region-wide revolts [Getty]
Tunisians should keep up the fight for their rights, believes the sister of a street vendor who set himself alight a decade ago, triggering a string of protests around the Arab world.

But Leila Bouazizi admitted the revolt which flared in late 2010 has done little to solve the economic problems that pushed her brother, Mohamed, over the edge.

"Everyone thought the government would do something," she told AFP in Quebec, where she moved to study in 2013 and has lived ever since.

"Unfortunately, it did nothing," she added, saying she was "very disappointed" in the outcome of the uprising, even though it brought down the north African country's long-time ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and installed a fragile system of democracy.

Mohamed Bouazizi and his family lived in modest circumstances in the run-down central rural town of Sidi Bouzid.

Like many young, unemployed Tunisians, Mohamed, then 26, provided for his loved ones with the limited means at hand, selling whatever fruits and vegetables were in season.

On the morning of December 17, 2010, the police seized Mohamed's handcart - which served as a makeshift stall - and his merchandise.

After a series of petty harassments, it was the last straw. Mohamed doused himself in petrol and set himself alight.

"It was an accumulation of things that made him explode," said Leila, now aged 34.

At the time, she was studying in another town, but she recalled hearing that her brother had been slapped by a policewoman during an altercation, although this was never confirmed. 

When Mohamed asked local authorities to investigate, "he didn't get a response", she said. 

"He was really annoyed... That's why he took petrol and did what he did."

The young man succumbed to his wounds in early 2011.

But his act had sparked unprecedented mass demonstrations across Tunisia, super-charged by social media, which then ignited a series of revolts across the Middle East.

Threats and harassment

"When my brother did that act, everyone exploded and protested against the system," Leila said.

"Everyone wanted the situation to change," she added, saying her brother had been in "the same situation" as most young people.

In the wake of his death, the Bouazizi family received "lots of threats" - including death threats - as well as harassment both online and in the streets by people opposed to the revolution.

Rumours were rife that they had become rich.

"It was dangerous," said Leila. Her mother, surviving brothers and sisters managed to emigrate to Quebec where Leila lives in a residential district and works in the aeronautics industry.

She said they are "well integrated", but continue to follow events in Tunisia.

The country has seen some progress in the past decade, she says - it has a new constitution and has organised several democratic elections.

"You can speak, you can demonstrate," she said, noting the lack of political freedoms during the 23-year rule of Ben Ali.

But a succession of governments has not fixed the economic situation, particularly tough for young people, Leila added.

"Every time there's a vote, they say 'we're going to do this, things will change,'" she said.

"But when they take power, nothing changes."

'Worse now?' 

She criticised the lack of solid measures to reform Tunisia's failing health system or fix its decrepit infrastructure, with deadly floods following every major rainstorm.

And despite some political progress, young people in marginalised regions such as Sidi Bouzid still face unemployment three times the national average.

With rising prices, stagnant incomes and few opportunities even for the highly educated, "the situation might even be worse now" than before the revolution, said Leila.

Tragically, dozens of young people still set themselves alight every year in Tunisia, which has also seen a spike in numbers of people, particularly jobless youth, attempting dangerous sea crossings to Europe.

Read also: The soundtrack of the Arab uprisings in 10 songs

"It's not just my brother," she said. "Lots of people have lost their lives."

But, she said, "I hope that things will change."

"Many people are still protesting, speaking out, for change," she said. "It might take more than 10 years, but young people must carry on protesting, speaking out, to get their rights."

Agencies contributed to this report.

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