Tunisia: 'I have lost my son, but I am proud of what he did'

The mother of the street vendor who set himself on fire, and triggered protests across North Africa, talks to Kim Sengupta

The street vendor who set himself alight, sparking an uprising which swept away 23 years of dictatorship in Tunisia and triggered protests across North Africa, had been beaten down by years of poverty and oppression by the authorities, his family told The Independent last night.

Mohamed Bouazizi – whose desperate act, copied in countries including Algeria and Egypt, has become a symbol of injustice and oppression – had lost his land, his living and had been humiliated by local officials.

In an interview yesterday at his home, his mother Mannoubia said she was proud of her son and of his role in changing the regime. His cries for help had been ignored by banks and officials, his family said. "The government drove him to do what he did; they never gave him a chance. We are poor and they thought we had no power," his mother said. "My son is lost, but look what is happening, how many people are now getting involved."

What made Mr Bouazizi's desperation and sense of hopelessness so real to those who were to rise up afterwards was that it mirrored many of their experiences. The 26-year-old lived in Sidi Bouzid, in the poor interior of the country, which is economically and culturally different from the capital Tunis and the northern coastal areas where then president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi and their venal courtiers enjoyed a life of opulence.

Mr Bouazizi had passed his baccalaureate but had found no skilled job in a region suffering from chronic underinvestment; the family land had been taken back by the bank, and his only source of income, from selling fruit and vegetables from a cart, was about to be lost because he could not get the required permit from the local council.

The act which drove Mr Bouazizi over the edge, it is claimed, was the humiliation of being slapped on the face in public by a female official of the municipality, Feyda Hamdi, during an altercation when she had attempted to impound his cart. Leila, 24, one of Mohamed's six siblings, acknowledged that the blow from an official, especially a woman, had undoubtedly shamed his brother. But what happened was the culmination of a series of events which had made him, and the family, feel they were the victims of a cruel and unfeeling system.

"It was always difficult. The worst thing was what happened to the land," she said. "We owned it with our neighbours and we grew olives and almonds. It was earning good money, but then things turned bad for a lot of people, our sales went down and the bank seized our land. I went with Mohamed, we appealed to the bank, we appealed to the governor, but no one listened. Other families had the same problem; people just ignored us."

Asma Gharbi, a hydraulic engineer who lives nearby, said: "Just look at this town, how everything is falling apart, there is no money. I have lived in Tunis and I can tell you the high-up people there don't care. Everyone is fed-up here, but Mohamed did something that forced people to take notice."

At the municipality headquarters, a junior official, Hassan Raidi, admitted shortcomings of the past. "But we were all afraid of Ben Ali and his people. So no one could make any criticism. Now things will change."

After his argument with Ms Hamdi, Mr Bouazizi walked off, came back with a can of patrol and set himself alight in front of the regional governor's residence. That was on 17 December. There were protests locally, unheeded calls for an investigation and for officials to be held to account. But there was very little wider publicity in Tunisia's censored and cowed media.

"The unions got involved, teachers, lawyers, doctors, all sections of civil society, and set up a Popular Resistance Committee to back the people of Sidi Bouzid and back the uprising. The uprising continued for 10 days in Sidi Bouzid, but with no support from outside," said Lazhar Gharbi, a head teacher.

But then the news of the self-immolation by the fruit seller began to spread through the online social network – Facebook, Twitter and blogs, raising an outcry unexpected in scale for something that happened in a small town. Mr Bouazizi was moved to a hospital in Tunis. Among the visitors was the president, who declared an inquiry would be held. He said Sidi Bouzid and surrounding areas would get grants and jobs. But the mood in the area was one of anger, fuelled by aggressive action by the police. After Mr Bouazizi died on 4 January, his funeral was attended by several hundred people chanting "Farewell Mohamed, we will avenge you. We weep for you today, others will weep tomorrow for what they did to you."

Since then Tunisia has changed, with Ben Ali forced into exile by protesters, many of whom cried out the name of Mohamed Bouazizi. He has been mentioned in blogs written by some of the others who burned themselves to death in Algeria, Egypt and Mauritania. Street clashes continue between protesters and police, as the country faces an uncertain future.

Sitting at the family home, a three roomed house, surrounded by her children, 48-year-old Mannoubia talked about how her son's death has politicised her: "I now know how Ben Ali had been stealing from the country. How the relations of Leila Trabelsi have been stealing. We do not want them back. But the situation is not just bad in Tunisia. I remember my husband used to talk about Libya, poor people there suffered as well. She continued: "I have a lot of people who come up to me now to say it is not just me who has lost a son, but the whole village that has lost a son. I am proud of what he did. I would like to go up to Tunis and take a look at these demonstrations. It is good to know that my son had played a part in changing things."

Whether any real changes come to Tunisia through the "Jasmine Revolution" remains to be seen. In Sidi Bouzid's central square a group of young men sit around on a wall with no job to go to.

Walid Ben Sanai, who trained as an engineer, sees no change for the better in sight. "Ben Ali has gone, but the government ministers are still the same. We are not seeing any real improvement, and unless there is some real improvement there will be real trouble.

"But we think about Mohamed Bouazizi. I hope he will be remembered."