TUNIS, Tunisia – It started with a young man who set himself on fire, acting out of desperation after police confiscated the fruits and vegetables he sold without a permit.
Mohamed Bouazizi was a 26-year-old university graduate without a steady job, trying to support his family. His self-immolation — which left him in intensive care, wrapped head to toe in white bandages — shocked the North African nation and sparked protests over unemployment that have led to at least three deaths.
For decades, Tunisia has promoted itself as an Arab world success story, a place where the economy is stronger than in neighboring countries, women's rights are respected, unrest is rare and European tourists can take stress-free vacations at beach resorts.
But the recent protests have exposed a side of Tunisia that the country has long tried to hide: the poverty of the countryside, poor job prospects for youths and seething resentment at the government of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who has ruled Tunisia with an iron fist since 1987.
Groups including the International Monetary Fund have praised Tunisia for holding up relatively well during the global economic crisis, and the country had growth of 3.1 percent in 2010, according to government figures.
Unemployment is the weak spot, at nearly 14 percent last year. The situation is worse outside the capital and tourist zones, in regions like Sidi Bouzid in the center-west, where Bouazizi lived.
It's also worse for educated youths. In a country where schooling has been emphasized for decades, 80,000 educated graduates enter the job market every year, and there isn't enough work for them.
Frederic Volpi, a North Africa scholar, says Tunisia has been "an overachiever in terms of promoting itself" despite its problems of political and civil rights and the economic imbalance between the successful regions and the countryside.
"What is surprising is not so much that we now discover that there are problems in Tunisia," said Volpi, a senior lecturer at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. "The surprise for people who actually analyze the region is, how come the international community, the media and observers could be fooled previously by the rhetoric of the Tunisian success story?"
Ben Ali's government tolerates little public dissent and has been caught off guard by the discontent. A U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks called Tunisia a "police state" and says Ben Ali has lost touch with his people.
Ben Ali said the protest violence was manipulated by foreign media and hurt the country's image. He replaced the communications minister in a government reshuffle, but retained the interior minister despite opposition calls to oust him.
He also ordered the prime minister to mobilize authorities nationwide for a 6.5 billion dinar ($4.5 billion) plan to create jobs for Tunisians with university diplomas — a substantial sum for a country of only 10 million people.
But the opposition says the government's response has been inadequate and that the protests are fueled not only by unemployment but by the lack of human rights.
The protests "show a profound crisis and illustrate a pressing need for change that would bring a return of confidence to citizens so they can lead lives that are free and dignified in their homeland," said Nejib Chebbi, founder of the Progressive Democratic Party
The protests started in Sidi Bouzid soon after Bouazizi's Dec. 17 suicide attempt. Police confiscated his goods, and an officer slapped him in front of passers-by, his supporters say. He tried to lodge a complaint, but authorities refused to accept it. Desperate, he doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire in public.
The self-immolation touched off demonstrations in neighboring towns, and later, in other regions.
Police opened fire at one protest, killing an 18-year-old. Another 44-year-old who was wounded by a bullet at the same protest died of his injuries Friday in the hospital, the man's family said.
At another protest, a 24-year-old jobless protester was electrocuted after announcing he wanted to end his life and mounting a high-voltage electricity pole.
Demonstrators have set police cars ablaze and threw firebombs at official buildings. Lawyers marched in several cities Friday in solidarity with demonstrators.
Opposition politicians say dozens have been arrested.
The unrest has gone with little mention in Tunisia's media, which is heavily controlled by the state.
But there was one surprising and potentially encouraging sign. Private station Nessma TV broadcast a program Thursday about the protest movement — a show without precedent in Tunisian history for its treatment of a politically sensitive subject.
In it, Sidi Bouzid's residents spoke of their suffering and complained of corruption, nepotism and impunity of those in power. Mounir Souissi, local reporter for the German news agency DPA, called the program "a true turning point — if it lasts."
Associated Press writer Angela Doland in Paris contributed to this report.