People shout slogans to show their solidarity with the residents of Sidi Bouzid during a demonstration on December 27, 2010 in Tunis.

© 2010 Getty Images

On Dec. 17, Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old university Tunisian graduate who took to selling vegetables when he was unable to find work, set himself on fire after police confiscated his unlicensed vegetable cart. His desperate act has caused a spontaneous outpouring of public anger in Tunisia over economic conditions and the ruling family's endemic corruption. The riots started in Bouazizi's hometown, Sidi Bouzid, deep in Tunisia's interior, and spread across the country to Tunis, Sousse, Sfax, Meknassi, and other cities. Thousands marched in solidarity with the residents of Sidi Bouzid, demanding jobs, better living conditions, and an end to uneven economic development and the corruption that drives it.

In the days that followed Bouazizi's tragic act, violence erupted, and police killed an 18-year-old youth as they shot into a crowd of protesters around a police station. Then, on Dec. 22, Neji Felhi, 24, climbed an electrical pole in the same town and shouted, "No to misery! No to unemployment!" then touched the 30,000-megawatt pole, killing himself. Two more of Tunisia's young, disenfranchised and unemployed attempted to end their own lives in similar ways in the days that followed.

What kind of hopelessness drives young men to attempt suicide, making a spectacle of their deaths in desperate protest? What is really happening in Tunisia behind President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's much-touted "economic miracle" that would lead ordinary people to steadfastly face lethal bullets from the internal security forces of one of the region's most notorious police states?

One answer is economic misery. Official statistics place unemployment in Tunisia at 14 percent, but the real figure is generally believed to be much higher, particularly among the nation's youth. Approximately 90 percent of Tunisia's investment projects have focused on the coastal regions, leaving the interior and south disproportionately underdeveloped. While the demonstrations are still primarily about unemployment, protesters clearly see links to the government's corruption, repression of dissent, and police impunity for abuses. This is the second set of protests in three years that have begun in the underdeveloped regions and spread across the country. In 2008, thousands of unemployed Tunisians took to the streets in the southwestern mining town of Redeyef demanding jobs and an end to poverty and nepotism. The government made promises to develop the region, but they proved to be empty.

As in 2008, President Ben Ali again has resorted to promises to create jobs and reshuffle the cabinet. He even made a sympathetic photo-op hospital visit to Bouazizi, the young man who set himself on fire. But Tunisians aren't buying it. What they do believe, though, is his promise to crack down on the protests "with the full force of the law." He also quickly used his police to respond to protesters with live ammunition, curfews, mass arrests, and citywide lockdowns.

Ben Ali also rapidly implemented a near-complete media blackout, with the tired excuse that news reports are part of a conspiracy to destabilize Tunisia. Protesters report that the police have started a campaign of night raids against demonstrators and union leaders, arresting scores of people, their numbers still unknown. The media blackout is so severe that in the first days of the riots, one Tunisian resident remarked incredulously on Twitter that everyone was lying about the riots, because he had seen nothing of them on TV or in the newspapers. This should not be surprising in a country where the government owns or controls practically all media outlets. Security forces confiscated the latest issues of the two independent newspapers that have reported on the riots, and police have physically prevented journalists from reporting on the demonstrations.

This hasn't stopped Tunisians from diligently getting the word out straight from the ground, though. Videos of the marches taken on mobile phones and minute-by-minute messages on Twitter and Facebook updates have become the activists' primary means of communication with the outside world, to great effect.

The rest of the region is intently watching the events unfold in Tunisia. Solidarity demonstrations have taken place in Beirut and Amman and are spreading to other major cities. Rumors abound that these protests mark the beginning of the end of Ben Ali, who has long insisted on iron-fisted rule as the tradeoff for economic security, but really has delivered only on the iron-fisted part of the bargain. Whether these rumors turn out to be true, such protests -- a true grassroots uprising that cuts across class and regional lines -- have the power to bring governments to a standstill, as Tunisia has seen previously.

How events in Tunisia will unfold and whether they will lead to significant change remains unclear, but they demonstrate a popular discontent powerful enough that people are willing to face Ben Ali's heavy hand rather than accept an oppressive and impoverishing status quo.

Rasha Moumneh is a Middle East and North Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch.