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Revolutionary graffiti and a poster showing the despairing vegetable seller who started it all, Mohamed Bouazizi, in downtown Sidi Bouzid. “The whole world is proud of you, Tunisia,” one slogan reads.
Revolutionary graffiti and a poster showing the despairing vegetable seller who started it all, Mohamed Bouazizi, in downtown Sidi Bouzid. “The whole world is proud of you, Tunisia,” one slogan reads.
Activist Lamine Bouazizi, shown in his office at home in Sidi Bouzid, says Tunisians refused to let the graffiti be repainted.
Activist Lamine Bouazizi, shown in his office at home in Sidi Bouzid, says Tunisians refused to let the graffiti be repainted.
Hamdouni Jamal, a headmaster of a local school, is disheartened. “I have pity for the people who have tagged this wall – they were naive to dream.”
Hamdouni Jamal, a headmaster of a local school, is disheartened. “I have pity for the people who have tagged this wall – they were naive to dream.”
Women protesting about overdue salary payments outside the governor’s office in Sidi Bouzid are asked to leave by a local police officer.
Women protesting about overdue salary payments outside the governor’s office in Sidi Bouzid are asked to leave by a local police officer.

Tunisia's heartland rues unfulfilled promise

Discontent is running high in the birthplace of the Arab Spring as its citizens discover great hopes of a better life will take longer to realise in the country's neglected interior. Alice Fordham reports from Sidi Bouzid.

SIDI BOUZID, TUNISIA // The need to escape the fierce heat is the main priority for mid-morning shoppers in the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid.

Without taking notice, they hurry past the graffiti and the vast poster of Mohamed Bouazizi, the vegetable seller whose self-immolation sparked protests that became the Arab uprisings.

But the activist Lamine Bouazizi, no relation, gestures to the slogans proudly as he passes, explaining that the people have refused to let the walls be repainted.

"We will not allow it to be removed until the goals of the revolution are achieved," Mr Bouazizi says.

Even after last year's toppling of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, however, those goals are a long way off.

Hundreds of demonstrators have surged back on to Sidi Bouzid's streets in recent weeks, complaining that unemployment is still high, corruption endures and investment is minimal, while provision of services has worsened.

The unrest highlights the long challenge of rebuilding a starkly unequal country where the hopes of many for a better life with a democratically elected government have been disappointed.

"As long as the demands of the people are not met, they will come out to protest," says Mr Bouazizi, an academic in anthropology.

He says bribes are still necessary to open a cafe or build a house, or even obtain a birth certificate.

Soaring temperatures over summer have put pressure on power and water supplies, and the resulting cuts have enraged people, while government workers claim to have been paid erratically, if at all.

Many with high school diplomas or degrees still cannot find work, with no significant job-creation project in the province of 400,000 people.

After a succession of small demonstrations last month, police arrested 10 protesters on August 9 when, state media reported, the protests became violent.

The arrests led to larger protests and on August 14 the town staged a general strike. Activists say more than 1,000 people marched to demand the release of the prisoners.

They were freed the same day, but discontent is simmering and protests continue.

One recent morning outside the governor's building about a dozen people, most of them women, were holding a sit-in.

They said they were state employees owed wages and had been there frequently for about three months to plead their case.

"They fired me and they didn't pay me the two months they owed me," said one woman, who had worked as a cleaner.

Divorced and with two children to support, she said now lives on about 100 Tunisian dinars (Dh229) a month in state aid.

"I have been coming here for a long time," she said, her voice breaking as others with similar stories crowded around.

With practised, weary determination, security forces slowly ushered the women off the premises. They said they would be back soon for another sit-in.

Political and economic analysts fear the present government, learning as it goes how to run a country, is ill-equipped to tackle the decades-old neglect of the interior.

"Regional disparity remains a central challenge to social cohesion," said a report commissioned by the World Bank, released in March.

The report says that under Ben Ali, coastal cities benefited from investment in infrastructure such as roads, schools and hospitals, and enterprise such as factories, while areas inside the country, including Sidi Bouzid, were denied such support.

Unemployment is as much as three times higher in the interior than in the coastal cities. The report links this disparity directly to last year's uprising.

"[Without] a serious and sustained government intervention, unrest may continue," it states.

But purging institutions of corruption and investing in new projects is a slow and difficult task, said a local member of the Ennahda party, which leads an interim government.

Sitting in an office with windows smashed by rock-throwing protesters the week before, Sufian Abdouli said the issues that divided people in the capital - the role of religion in politics, women in society - seemed less relevant here.

Although his party is a religious one, Mr Abdouli said the focus in Sidi Bouzid was on social issues and development. He urged people to be patient.

"Sidi Bouzid has been suffering from neglect for dozens of years," he said. "And now the government is trying to solve the problem but we need to be honest - it will take time."

Mr Abdouli said failure to pay government workers had been behind much of the unrest, although he claimed the government straight after Ben Ali's fall worsened the problem with unnecessary hiring.

He added that authorities had tried to encourage investment in the region, but laws from the previous regime hampered business, and unions and workers fired up by last year's uprising were constantly striking and slowing progress.

"When the construction company came to start they found many problems with the people, especially those led by the left," Mr Abdouli said. "The government is at a dead end."

On the streets, people seem disheartened. Hamdouni Jamal, a headmaster of a local school, looked for a long moment at a sculpture of Mohamed Bouazizi's legendary vegetable cart and the graffiti covering the walls behind it.

"The whole world is proud of you, Tunisia," read one slogan, written in French.

"I have pity for the people who have tagged this wall," said Mr Jamal. "They were naive to dream."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

   

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