Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 25 April 2019

Sidi Bouzid's rage still simmers, 8 years after Tunisian revolution

Free speech and civil liberties have yet to transform into jobs in this hardluck Tunisian town

University professors and teachers take part in a protest to demand higher wages in Tunis, Tunisia December 19, 2018. Reuters
University professors and teachers take part in a protest to demand higher wages in Tunis, Tunisia December 19, 2018. Reuters

Sidi Bouzid’s streets filled with the angry shouts of the region’s unemployed graduates earlier this week. It’s not an unusual sight in a town where joblessness is rife. On Monday however, their protest marked the eight year anniversary of an event in the town that changed the country, the region and, ultimately, the world.

Located among the sand and brush that dominates much of Tunisia’s hardscrabble hinterland, Sidi Bouzid is an unremarkable town. On its main street, shopkeepers look out onto passing traffic, speaking of extended families and the unemployed relatives they must support from the day’s takings.

It wasn’t much different eight years ago when 26-year-old street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi, unable to afford a bribe after police kicked over his fruit cart and confiscated his scales, set himself alight outside the governor’s office, igniting a revolution in Tunisia that spread like wildfire across the region.

Almost a decade after the revolution, many still question what was achieved during those tumultuous days between 2010 and 2011. While Tunisia has transitioned to democracy, advances in free speech and civil liberties have yet to transform into jobs and a stable income for the legions who lie idle, or eke out a living in informal employment, across the country.

Civil society activist, Aymen Abderrahmen grew up near the town and tells The National: “Life was not easy in Sidi Bouzid before December 2010, and even worse in the peripheries.”

The presence of Tunisia’s autocratic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally, was everywhere. “If you had an opposition figure in your broader family, you’ll very likely be denied legal documents from the police station, denied application to work and studies, denied a passport and such, so everyone – including members of my family – had to join the party.”

Before Tunisia’s revolution, any activity outside of the president’s party came at a cost. “Even organising a school cultural club or a sports tournament, or joining the students union, for instance, would have jeopardised my father's job as a school principal,” Mr Abderrahmen said.

Learning of Bouazizi’s self-immolation through foreign reporting, 23-year-old Tunis resident Inel Tarfa never imagined that the Sidi Bouzid street vendor’s final act would trigger a revolution. There had been another self-immolation, that of Abdesslem Trimech in Monastir nine months previously, with little media attention or reform following. Even the widespread riots in the mining basin of Gafsa in 2008 had done little to loosen the iron grip Mr Ben Ali and his wife’s extended Trabelsi family exerted upon the country.

“I’d never really been politically involved.” Mr Tarfa said. “But one day the political police came to our house, arrested my brother and seized his computer. They took him away and that was that. We didn’t hear anything about him for two months.”

Mr Tarfa’s brother had been accused of posting anti regime propaganda online, an offence punishable by law. His parents were desperate. “They tried everything. They went round all the police stations, all the hospitals, everything. Eventually, a parent of another prisoner told them that their son had been imprisoned alongside my brother, so we knew he was OK. A month later he was released on probation.

“That was it, really. After that, I hated them. I’d watch them on TV just lying to us. They would look us in the face and they would lie.”

Tunisia’s economy was stagnating. Inflation and mass unemployment were intruding upon the lives of many. Dissent was finding its voice and spreading. Mabrouka Mbarak, later one of the Constituent Assembly deputies responsible for helping draft the country’s post-revolution constitution said: “When I heard of the immolation, I immediately recognised that Bouazizi is us… marginalised by contempt, dispossessed by a global system of accumulation capitalism and domination, deprived from dignity by a dictatorship supported by the West.”

The demonstrations that started in the wake of Bouazizi’s desperate protest morphed into riots, spreading outwards and engulfing much of the country. Mr Tarfa tracked their spread on social media, eventually heading into the city centre and joining with the hundreds who had gathered round the central trade union office to give voice to their fury. “I couldn’t believe it. They were actually chanting the names of the Trabelsi family, and even Ben Ali himself,” Mr Tarfa said. “I was sure that the police would react violently, but all they did was insult us and tell us to go home.”

It wasn’t until later, when Mr Tarfa joined a further protest that he witnessed the brutality of Tunisia’s police. “They just beat people. You could see their faces, they were filled with hate.”

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On January 13, Mr Ben Ali finally confronted the scale of the protest against him, making a speech promising economic relief for the country’s hard-pressed population. However, by that time, it was too late. The next day, with the smell of tear gas lingering and bullet casings lying on the ground, he resigned.

Today, Tunisia still struggles with the legacy of his 23 year rule. Despite a commitment to the principles of democracy, there has been a reluctance among parts of the Tunisian establishment to reckon with past sins. Recovery and reform have been slow.

Many of Mr Ben Ali’s cadre have returned to mainstream politics, with the president – himself a former ally of the deposed autocrat – spearheading the amnesty of the old regime’s civil service last year. Joblessness remains around 15 per cent, climbing to double that figure in some of the more hard pressed interior towns.

With little sign of economic growth to inspire hope for the future, many citizens take to the streets at regular intervals. Occasionally, their demands are met. At other times their vocal presence provides a reminder to those in power that with many of the conditions that first sparked the country’s revolution unimproved, the public’s thirst for something better is unquenched.

Updated: December 20, 2018 05:48 PM

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