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Family of dead Tunisian hero wants democracy

The family of a young man who set himself ablaze, triggering a popular uprising that overthrew Tunisia's autocratic president, wants Tunisians to honor his memory by fighting for democracy.

Mohamed Bouazizi's mother prayed at her son's concrete tomb in the graveyard of this central Tunisian town, as she does daily.

"I pray that the new authorities will make new fair policies — policies that my son inspired," Manoubia Bouazizi told The Associated Press.

Mohamed Bouazizi was a 26-year-old university graduate without a steady job. He struggled to make ends meet for his widowed mother, four brothers and three sisters.

Having failed to find better employment, he would fill up a rickety wooden cart with fruits and vegetables and wheel it into the town market. His relatives said he was harassed by municipal officials for not having a license to sell the vegetables. When he didn't pay bribes, town authorities broke up his cart and stopped him from selling his wares.

His family said a municipal official hit him, spat in his face, and called him filthy when they destroyed his small business. In despair, he stood on his vegetable cart, poured a liter and a half of gas on his body and set it on fire.

"My son has always been a hardworking person, and it never occurred to me that he would think about burning himself," said his mother. "But the insults and humiliation from the municipal authorities became too much — how was he supposed to pay bribes and keep his family fed?"

His self-immolation Dec. 17 — which left him in intensive care, wrapped head to toe in white bandages — resonated with other young graduates struggling to find jobs, sparking protests first in his town and then, town by town, around the country. After two weeks days hovering between life and death, he died Jan. 5.

Others died too, protesters killed in clashes with Tunisian police, or those who imitated Bouazizi's suicidal act. In recent days self-immolations have taken place in Egypt, Algeria and Mauritania, apparently inspired by Bouazizi.

For decades, Tunisia has promoted itself as an Arab world success story, a stable 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 had ruled Tunisia with an iron fist since 1987.

Nearly a month of protests following Bouazizi's self-immolation drove Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia a week ago. A caretaker government is struggling to restore calm.

"We want a new government that will give us our rights as a real citizens, not just lip service," said Bouazizi's sister, Samia. "A government that knows the value of the word 'citizen' because this is the right of my brother and it is the right of all Tunisians."

The young man's house is small and bare, with uncarpeted floors, a few couches to sit on and a refrigerator in the hallway. A set of vegetable scales that he used on his cart lays on the floor as a reminder of the profession he used to feed his family.

"The day Mohamed burned was like a small tree that burned but left its roots deeply planted in the ground," said his aunt Radia Bouazizi. "I pray that the people of Tunisia do not waste this opportunity for revolution."

Visiting Bouazizi's tomb, a teenage brother cried softly as he fell on the grave.

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Al Shalchi reported from Tunis.