TEBOURBA, Tunisia – Adel Dridi's head is covered in bandages, his voice subdued, as he describes setting himself on fire after police barred him from selling strawberries on the side of a Tunisian road. The desperate act has become the latest symbol of struggling Tunisians' anger at corruption and joblessness.
It came as the president deployed the army last week to quell growing protests — and echoed another self-immolation by a vendor six years ago that led to a democratic revolution in Tunisia and unleashed upheaval across the Arab world.
Dridi's friends and family warn that others may follow his lead if Tunisia's authorities don't wake up to their concerns and invest in impoverished inland regions.
Dridi had been selling strawberries on May 10 from the side of a road in the neglected town of Tebourba, just 30 kilometers (about 20 miles) from the capital Tunis, for three months when police approached him and his partner Wednesday and threatened to seize their merchandise for lack of permission to sell the fruit, Dridi told The Associated Press.
The police officers walked away, and returned 10 minutes later with three police cars, Dridi said.
"While we were putting the strawberries back in the cases, one of the officers turned over the tables and threw the fruit on the ground, before putting me and my friend in a car, slapping us and hitting us with truncheons," he said, sitting on a foam mattress on the floor that serves as his bed.
"I was seeing red, and I could no longer control myself," he continued. "That's when I threw myself out of the car and went to the motorcycle of a friend who was nearby, where I founded in the storage compartment a bottle of gasoline that I poured on my body, and I lit a fire with a lighter."
His friend Hichem Kharroubi quickly wrapped Dridi in a jacket and sprayed him with a fire extinguisher from a bus stopped nearby.
Anger at the police actions outraged local residents, who hurled stones at security forces, who in turn sprayed the crowd with tear gas. Protesters blocked the train tracks in anger.
Dridi's family has filed a legal complaint with local prosecutors. Local police wouldn't comment on the incident.
The regional governor came to calm protesters and promised to address their concerns. Local officials came to see Dridi in the hospital and promised medicines, but Dridi says he has yet to see them.
His head and upper body are now covered in bandages, and he has difficulty moving after suffering second-degree burns to the face, neck and chest. The farmer who sold him the strawberries is still waiting to be paid, he says.
"I'm not a delinquent, a criminal, a smuggler. I am trying to earn a living," he said, asking why police didn't just issue him a fine.
Protesters in several regions of Tunisia are holding sit-ins and blocking roads out of anger at inflation and lack of job prospects, especially for educated young people. Tunisia's president took the unusual measure of deploying the army last week to protect petroleum and phosphate facilities disrupted by the protests.
President Beji Caid Essebsi warned "the democratic process in Tunisia is seriously threatened," and said protests must be "within the framework of the law." Authorities don't want to see a repeat of the unrest that followed fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation in 2010.
Today's protesters are skeptical of a government plan to allow magnates accused of corruption under the overthrown regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to resume business activities, in exchange for reimbursing the state for ill-gotten gains. Protesters say it's an effort to whitewash corruption, while the government says it's a way to boost the atrophying economy.
Many youth in Dridi's town are "lost, without work," Dridi said. "What happened to me could happen to anyone. People are awaiting the slightest spark to let out their frustration."
As he spoke, his mother Dalila looked on in anguish. "When my son set himself on fire, I felt like it was me who was burning."
Dridi, 31, was supporting his parents and siblings with his strawberry earnings. The police "demolished our whole family," his mother said. "Who will provide us food now?"
Dridi's friend Kharroubi, 26, threatened to do the same, and lamented, "The revolution brought us nothing."