Tunisian vendor immolates self ahead of govt vote

A cigarette vendor suffered severe burns Tuesday after immolating himself in an act of desperation on a Tunis street hours before lawmakers were to vote on a new government to pull Tunisia out of political crisis.

Officials named the man as 27-year-old Adel Khadri and said he hails from an extremely poor family in Jendouba in northwestern Tunisia. He arrived in the capital a few months ago to look for work.

"This is a young man who sells cigarettes because of unemployment," witnesses quoted Khadri shouting before he set himself on fire on the steps of the municipal theatre on Habib Bourguiba avenue -- epicentre of the 2011 uprising that toppled ex-dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Passers-by rushed to douse the flames but not before Khadri had suffered serious burn wounds. He was still conscious when he was rushed to the Ben Arous hospital by emergency services.

Officials said Khadri, who eked out a living peddling cigarettes in the streets of Tunis, was a broken man.

"His life is not in danger but he has third-degree burns to the head and the back," emergency services spokesman Mongi Khadhi said.

"He was demoralised. His father died four years ago. He has three brothers and the family is very poor."

Interior ministry spokesman Khaled Tarrouche too attributed Khadri's desperate action to poverty.

"He is unemployed and came to Tunis a few months ago. He was very fragile, psychologically broken, and that is why he set himself on fire."

The number of people committing suicide or attempting to take their own lives has multiplied in Tunisia since a young street vendor set himself on fire on December 17, 2010, in a drastic act of protest against police harassment.

Mohamed Bouazizi's death in the town of Sidi Bouzid ignited a mass uprising that toppled Ben Ali the following month and touched off the Arab Spring uprisings across several countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

Economic and social difficulties were the key factors that brought down Ben Ali's regime and two years since he fled from Tunisia unemployment and poverty continue to plague the north African country.

The economy was badly affected by the revolution, which paralysed the strategic tourism sector, although the country is out of recession and posted 3.6 percent growth in 2012.

Unemployment remains high at about 17 percent, especially among young graduates.

In addition to economic hardships, Tunisia is grappling with a political crisis that has been exacerbated by the daylight murder on February 6 of Chokri Belaid, a leftist opposition leader.

More than two years after the mass protests that toppled Ben Ali, the country is still without a fixed political system due to a lack of consensus between the main parties.

The ruling Islamist Ennahda party is pushing for a pure parliamentary system while others are demanding that the president retain key powers.

Parliament was to meet later Tuesday to debate a new cabinet line-up headed by premier-designate Ali Larayedh of the Ennahda. Officials said a vote could be delayed until Wednesday.

The new cabinet was formed as part of efforts to resolve the political impasse, which last month brought down the government of Hamadi Jabali.

The MPs are also to vote on a timetable for the adoption of a new constitution and the staging of legislative elections.

Opposition MPs have rejected as "unrealistic" plans to hold a July vote on the constitution and to stage new elections in October.

Assembly speaker Ben Jaafar has called for an end to the tug-of-war, with the political uncertainty in Tunisia also exacerbated by the growing influence of militant Islamist groups.