TUNIS: An unemployed young man set himself on fire in the center of Tunis Tuesday in a gesture recalling the self-immolation of Mohammad Bouazizi, whose death ignited a revolt in Tunisia that echoed across the Arab world.
Officials identified the man as 27-year-old Adel Khadri and said he came from an extremely poor family in Jendouba in northwestern Tunisia. He had arrived in the capital a few months earlier to look for work.
“This is a young man who sells cigarettes because of unemployment,” witnesses quoted Khadri as shouting before he set himself on fire on the steps of the municipal theater on Habib Bourguiba Avenue – epicenter of the 2011 uprising that toppled ex-dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
Passers-by rushed to douse the flames but not before Khadri had suffered serious burns. He was still conscious when the emergency services rushed him to Ben Arous hospital.
Officials said Khadri, who eked out a living peddling cigarettes in the streets of Tunis, was a broken man.
“His life is not in danger but he has third-degree burns to the head and the back,” emergency services spokesman Mongi Khadhi said.
“He was demoralized. His father died four years ago. He has three brothers and the family is very poor.”
Interior Ministry spokesman Khaled Tarrouche also attributed Khadri’s desperate action to poverty.
“He is unemployed and came to Tunis a few months ago. He was very fragile, psychologically broken, and that is why he set himself on fire.”
The number of people committing suicide or attempting to take their own lives has multiplied in Tunisia since Bouazizi, a young street vendor, set himself on fire on Dec. 17, 2010, in a drastic act of protest against harassment by police.
Bouazizi’s death in the town of Sidi Bouzid ignited a mass uprising that ousted Ben Ali the following month and touched off the Arab Spring revolts across several countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
Economic and social difficulties were the key factors that brought down Ben Ali’s regime, and after two years since he fled to Saudi Arabia, unemployment and poverty still plague the North African country.
The economy was badly affected by the revolution, which paralyzed the strategic tourism sector, although the country is out of recession and posted 3.6 percent growth in 2012.
The unemployment rate is about 17 percent, and is especially high among young graduates.
Habib Bourguiba Avenue is home to sidewalk cafes where many earn their livelihood peddling cigarettes, flowers or other goods despite a ban.
Many vendors have complained of police harassment, but some like Salem, who sells women’s lingerie, say they will defy the rules because they have no choice.
“I will play cat and mouse with the local police and sell my goods on streets as long as I don’t have a steady job. I have a family to feed,” Salem told AFP.
In addition to economic hardships, Tunisia is grappling with a political crisis exacerbated by the daylight murder on Feb. 6 of Chokri Belaid, a leftist opposition leader.