Tunisian president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, came to power in 1987. Inflation, unemployment, lack of freedom of expression, the president's conspicuous displays of wealth and rumours of corruption have added fuel to the graduates' unrest. Photograph: AP Tunisia
's leader, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, has threatened a crackdown against violent protests over graduate unemployment following some of the country's worst unrest in a decade.
"The law will be applied in all firmness," Ben Ali warned, adding that its enforcement would be targeted at "a minority of extremists and mercenaries who resort to violence and disorder".
Ben Ali also fired the country's communications minister, Oussama Romdhani, in a government reshuffle after saying that the violence was manipulated by foreign media and hurt the country's image.
Protests are rare in Tunisia. Human rights groups
say dissent is routinely suppressed
, but high unemployment and lack of political reforms are feeding social tensions. Ten days of demonstrations were triggered in the central town of Sidi Bouzid by the attempted suicide this month of an unemployed graduate, Mohammed Bouazizi. He doused himself in petrol and set himself alight when police confiscated the fruits and vegetables he was trying to sell, because he had no permit.
Over the weekend, the protests spread to other towns and on Monday reached the capital, Tunis, where 1,000 people gathered outside the offices of the General Union of Tunisian Workers and protesters scuffled with police. Police cars and government buildings were set ablaze. One protester is reported to have killed himself by throwing himself on to electric pylons.
On Tuesday, Ben Ali visited the families of the two young men killed in the protests, one of them shot by police. He also went to see Bouazizi in the severe burns ward of a Tunis hospital.
In his televised speech, the president warned that the unrest would hurt tourism, a central economic pillar in a country that presents itself as a tranquil haven in a turbulent region. But critics say his regime has become increasingly corrupt
and unresponsive to popular grievances.
And a 2008 cable from the US embassy in Tunis released by WikiLeaks
described the Ben Ali family as a "quasi mafia". It said: "Seemingly half of the Tunisian business community can claim a Ben Ali connection through marriage, and many of these relations are reported to have made the most of their lineage.
"With Tunisians facing rising inflation and high unemployment, the conspicuous displays of wealth and persistent rumours of corruption have added fuel to the fire."
Since coming to power in 1987, Ben Ali has dramatically boosted the number of university and college places so that one in three young Tunisians now go on to some form of higher education. Job creation has not kept pace. The unemployment rate for those between 15 and 29 is 30%.
"The issue of unemployment has been serious for a long time, especially among young graduates. The sectors where there has been development and jobs have been mainly low-skilled. Also, three-quarters of Tunisia's exports go to Europe and the financial crisis there has fuelled the situation.
"In addition, there is frustration at the lack of freedom of expression and the possibilities to participate politically."
In recent days there have been signs that the protests have become more political, with chants calling on Ben Ali not to stand for re-election in 2014. He was elected for a fifth term in 2009 with 89% of the vote.
Our correspondents on Twitter
Follow all the top stories of the day on Twitter with the Guardian's world news team
... though not from Italy, furious that Lula has refused to extradite fugitive 70s radical Cesare Battisti - more on that soon
Bestsellers from the Guardian shop
Latest news on guardian.co.uk
Last updated less than one minute ago
Search the Guardian bookshop
Find the latest jobs in your sector:
Zurich | unspecified
13 Jul 2010
Political and economic life in Tunisia is subject to government's 'aggressive and repressive' tactics, says report
30 Dec 2010
Brian Whitaker: Can Tunisian protesters end the 'Arab malaise'? Will Egypt ever catch the people traffickers? What is a woman's life worth?
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010