One year after Tunisian revolt began, little has changed, residents say

The self-immolation of vegetable seller Mohammed al-Bouazizi on Dec. 17, 2010, did much to set off the Arab uprisings; but Tunisians in his town say the regime has changed in name only.

Christophe Ena/AP/File
Riot police officers detain a protestor during clashes in Tunis, Tunisia, Jan. 14, 2011.

It was supposed to be a day of national pride, the anniversary of a shocking self-immolation in a sleepy Tunisian town that kicked off the Arab Spring.

But behind the banners, Tunisian flags, and impromptu street celebrations, there was a growing sense of disappointment and frustration over a revolution that despite shaking the Arab World to its core has yet to deliver on basic demands of economic equality that fueled the Arab Spring.

One year since vegetable vendor Mohammed al-Bouazizi’s set himself aflame in a dying act of protest against the regime of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, residents of the agriculture-dependent town, situated at the crossroads of Tunis, claim they have yet to see the benefits of a year of protests and political change.  

Authorities have yet to extend electricity to many of the villages surrounding the city of 50,000, unemployment still hovers at 40 percent according to unofficial reports, and rather than university, many youths resort to selling vegetables from wooden carts like Bouazizi before them, residents say.

Kader Shibali, one of Bouazizi’s neighbors in the town’s congested Hay Al Noor neighbourhood said that despite political freedoms, the central region suffers the same chronic economic ills that faces most of Tunisia: a centralization of resources, lack of job creation, poor public services, and a brain drain of young residents who go on to the capital or abroad for better economic opportunities.

“Sidi Bouzid in 2011 is worse than Sidi Bouzid in 2010, and we believe next year is going to be even worse,” Mr. Shibali said.

Al Kader Mansour, headmaster of the Zuhra primary school that Bouzizi attended for several years, said the school continues to suffer the same problems that plagued the education system during the Ben Ali era: overcrowded classrooms, outdated learning materials, and understaffing – challenges that he says pose an uphill climb for Sidi Bouzid’s future generation.

'Hope cannot fill the stomach'

“We have hope for the future,” Mansour said on the sidelines of a day marking the sacrifice of the school’s most famous pupil. “But hope cannot fill the stomach or educate our children.”

Amidst three days of festivities that included concerts to candlelight vigils, signs of broken promises and a rising sense of frustration were ever-present.    

A few meters from the very spot where Bouzizi lit the match which inflamed a revolution, some two-dozen unemployed Sidi Bouzid residents carried an open-ended sit-in to protest a lack of economic opportunities into its second week.  

Crouching in tents packed with mattresses, protestors said that although they are able to assemble publicly without the harassment of security forces – something unheard of in the Ben Ali era – their efforts have had limited results.  

 “Through the death of our martyrs, we have earned the freedom of expression,” said Sidi Bouzid resident and former professor Najem Jabli.

“But without officials listening to us, this freedom is empty.”

Without work, that corruption is robbing Tunisia of future economic opportunities.

“They changed the names, they changed the political parties, but our president might as well be named Ben Ali,” said Mohamed Shabali.

Naziha Rajiba, a prominent Tunisian journalist and human rights activist, said there is a deepening sense among Tunisia’s young revolutionaries that one year after they unleashed decades of pent up democratic aspirations, their work has only just begun.

“The revolution was not a single event, but the start of an ongoing process,” Ms. Rajiba said.   

“Tunisia faces many economic, social and political challenges, and people are beginning to learn that we need to keep the pressure on politicians to live up to their promises.”

Meeting high expectations

If Sidi Bouzid is any indicator, Tunisia’s first post-Ben Ali elected government – a coalition, dominated by the Islamist Nahda party, that was announced this week after several delays due to internal wrangling – will face a tall task ahead.

Moments after recently elected President Mansouf Marzouqi delivered a speech commemorating the revolution and the sacrifice of Tunisians on Dec. 17, dozens of Sidi Bouzid residents attempted to storm the city’s municipal headquarters to present their demands to the human rights defender turned political activist.

“They are in their palaces in Tunis, they got their political freedoms and we are still suffering on the street waiting for our economic rights,” said Um Jafar, dabbing her eyes with a crumpled paper listing her demands after being turned away from a meeting with Marzouqi.

“All Tunisians are beginning to ask: Is this really what our martyrs died for?”

Unemployed farmhand Jamal Jalabi, gave an even grimmer outlook.

“People say ‘give the government a year,’” he says. “I give it six months before the people return to the streets.”

Mixed legacy

Friends and family admit that one year on, Sidi Bouzid’s patron saint would have had mixed feelings of the revolution’s outcome.

“Mohammed would be happy to see Ben Ali gone – anybody who is a Tunisian is proud to see him gone,” said Naafil Harshani, youth activist and friend of Bouazizi. “But I think that he would be disappointed to see that many of his peers are still facing the tough economic conditions.”

Childhood friend Mohammed Ammari claimed that should Bouazizi be alive today, his job prospects would be little improved.

“If Mohammed was in Sidi Bouzid today, he would have trouble affording vegetables to fill his cart,” Mr. Ammari said. “If he hadn’t sacrificed his life in 2010, the economic conditions would have killed him 2011.”

Salem al-Bouazizi, Mohammed’s brother, admitted that one year after the vegetable vendor lit the match that ignited a popular uprising, the revolution is still “half-way complete.”

“We have earned political freedoms, freedom of expression, we are now free of fear from security services – this is a very important first step,” he said. “But we still have the other 50 percent – economic development, job creation, social services – and people are getting tired of waiting for the second half.”

Residents point out that many of the officials who carried out injustices and a crackdown against protestors that cost over 200 lives have largely gone unprosecuted, while the politicians who used families of martyrs for photo-ops to boost their revolutionary credentials in the months leading up to legislative elections have been nowhere to be found since their entrance into the Constituent Assembly.

“For months, politicians used the death of martyrs for their personal and political agendas and they have ignored the people’s demands for basic dignity,” said Muneiba, Bouazizi’s mother. “My son did not die for us to return to the days of Ben Ali. This is why our revolution must continue.”

According to youth activists who helped lead the revolution, the harsh tones on the streets reflect a rising sense of resentment among citizens that the revolution has been “hijacked” by politicians – many of whom spent years in exile during Ben Ali’s reign – who young Tunisians’ claim are more interested in bringing their decades-old agendas into practice rather than tackling the demands of the street. 

“We have come to realized that politicians have confiscated the efforts of young people,” said Leena Ben Mhani, a Sidi Bouzid human rights activist and blogger. “People are not happy – they are not happy with what they have seen over the last year and they are not happy with the direction of the country.”

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