Tunisia's President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali is facing the toughest test of his 23-year reign, with severe public unrest over rising food prices and unemployment as focal points. Protests have been intensifying since December 17, when police confiscated fruits and vegetables sold without a permit by a young graduate who had no other means of earning a living. The young man's consequent self-immolation caused his death, provoking disturbances in which public buildings as well as offices of the ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), were attacked. Violent clashes between the police and groups, mainly of students who face high levels of graduate unemployment, have spread across the country from the western town of Sidi Bouzaid, where the self-immolation occurred. All schools and universities are closed, and news clampdowns have only fuelled rumours. As the government controls the press, including privately owned newspapers and broadcasters, reliable details of casualties from police shooting are impossible to obtain. But trade unions and opposition leaders speak of a rising toll, upwards of 20 deaths.

The protests signify much else besides the Tunisian public's anger over prices and jobs. First, they frontally challenge the World Economic Forum claim that Tunisia's growth rate of 4.5 per cent makes it the most competitive economy in Africa. Secondly, the advances in women's rights, including an end to polygamy and the introduction of universal compulsory free education, are largely inheritances from Mr. Ben Ali's predecessor, Habib Bourguiba. Thirdly, Tunisia has been shown up to be one of the most authoritarian states in the world. But the European Union as well as the former colonial power, France, have responded to the latest developments in low key, presumably because Mr. Ben Ali is an important partner for their policy of blocking immigration from North Africa. The main issues, however, are specifically Tunisian. While neighbouring Algeria responded to protests by cutting taxes on sugar and cooking oil, Mr. Ben Ali called the protesters “hooded hooligans” and “hostile elements on foreign payrolls, who have sold their souls to extremism and terrorism.” Since then he has shown at least some recognition of the nature of the crisis; he has sacked his Interior Minister and formed a committee to investigate corruption. That, however, could be too little too late. The strongman is caught up in a deep political crisis; if he cannot produce quick and decisive improvement on all fronts, the Tunisian people might well take their state back into their own hands.