Tunisia is in some ways the most European country of North Africa. It boasts a relatively large middle class, liberal social norms, broad gender equality and welcoming Mediterranean beaches. United States officials give it high marks for its aggressive prosecution of terrorism suspects.
But Tunisia also has one of the most repressive governments in a region full of police states. Residents long tolerated extensive surveillance, scant civil liberties and the routine use of torture, at least until the economic malaise that has gripped southern Europe spread to the country, sending unemployment and public resentment skyrocketing.
On Jan. 14, 2011, the authoritarian president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, left the country amid growing chaos. His prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, said in a speech to the nation that he would take up presidential power on an interim basis until elections could be held.
A month before, in December 2010, a college- educated street vendor burned himself to death in protest of his dismal prospects amid Tunisia’s poverty. A wave of violent demonstrations spread. By Jan. 12, they reached the capital for the first time. Tunisia had not seen such demonstrations since Mr. Ben Ali came to power 23 years ago in a bloodless coup. Dozens died as security forces — including snipers, witnesses say — fired on protesters.
After the president tried to placate the protestors with promises of more freedoms, including a right to demonstrate, tens of thousands rushed into the streets of downtown Tunis to take advantage of his pledge by calling for his ouster. They vented their anger at corruption involving Mr. Ben Ali and his family by looting a seaside villa owned by a relative.
Police moved on thousands of protesters during an impromptu funeral procession in front of the Interior Ministry, filling the street with thick clouds of tear gas and sending crowds stampeding for cover.