Special from Sidi Bouzid: Some hope in the heart of the Arab Spring

SIDI BOUZID, Tunisia — Many have called Sidi Bouzid the birthplace of the Arab Spring after vegetable seller Muhammad Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest his humiliation and extortion at the hands of local police. Bouazizi’s act served as the spark that ignited the country, with protesters forcing the overthrow of Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Popular uprisings followed throughout the region.

However, one year after Bouazizi’s act, many Sidi Bouzidans insist that nothing has changed.

“We all love Bouazizi. I can’t describe this day — it’s like I entered paradise,” says Hisham Laife, a 24-year-old vegetable seller who says he and Bouazizi had been friends since childhood. Yet, as over 10,000 Tunisians hold celebrations — blocks away from the vegetable seller’s cart — honoring the one-year anniversary of when Bouazizi burned himself alive, Laife remains pessimistic.

“Not a thing has changed since the revolution,” he says.

A neighboring vegetable seller, a 60-year-old by the name of Rabah Rabihi, nods his head in agreement only a few steps behind Laife.

“There haven’t been any changes. They need to solve unemployment,” says Rabihi.

Most of those employed in Sidi Bouzid work in agriculture. Unemployment across the country stands at over 18 percent, higher than the rate prior to the revolution. According to figures published by the Tunisian Finance Ministry in August, unemployment among university graduates in the interior of the country, including Sidi Bouzid, runs between 31 and 48 percent.

Revolutionary graffiti adorned the town’s main avenue and a giant poster of Bouazizi covered the face of a building as thousands gathered over the weekend for a festival commemorating the self-immolation. Leaders from Tunisia’s top political parties in the newly elected constituent assembly came to address the crowds. Many cheered when President Moncef Marzouki began to speak. His speech marks the first time a Tunisian president has given an official address to the people of Sidi Bouzid.

“Marzouki deserves to be president, but we hope that he will be a good president,” says 65-year-old retired farmer Nsibi, who asks that his last name not be published. “This is a city rich in resources, but it does not have investment. It needs modernizing.”

“[Tunisia’s first president Habib] Bourguiba was a good, educated dictator, but Ben Ali was ignorant, did not understand politics and could not speak French,” says Othman bin Zaghlani Mahmoudi, a 71-year-old vegetable seller who was a farmer until he began working with Rabihi three years ago. “Marzouki is good so far, but we have to wait.”

Meanwhile, less than a block away from the podium where politicians address the crowds, several tents have been set up by hunger strikers upset with the lack of employment opportunities.

Kadri Mohamed, a 28-year-old with a diploma in history from Sfax University, says he has been on a hunger strike in front of Sidi Bouzid’s municipal building for 27 days, only drinking water and eating sugar.

“We need a second revolution. The politicians cannot really do anything. They are like mice,” he says.

Uneven regional distribution of development funds is part of the problem for the people of Sidi Bouzid. Also, corruption remains widespread, present in every sector. Jawida Mahmoudi, a 26-year-old woman standing with the hunger strikers, says that corruption, favoritism and nepotism prevent qualified people with degrees from getting the jobs they deserve.

“We need a meritocracy, not a corrupt system. Corruption dominates the whole system, and it’s getting worse. Our education level is decreasing because of corruption,” she says.

Mahmoudi, who is a technical manager by training, says she lost her job at the public Hydraulic Association several years ago. She accuses the association, which sells water to agricultural purchasers in the region, of being run by people without diplomas who use the association’s money for themselves. She says this is only one example of an endemic problem.

“The first thing we have to change is the way we think. We have the same dictatorship in the home as in the street,” she says. “We must change ourselves.”

On Sidi Bouzid’s market street, several blocks away from the crowds and festivities, Tareq Naji, a 37-year-old agricultural chemical-product vendor, meets with his vegetable-selling cousin across from his stall.

“They are all Bouazizis,” Naji says, pointing to lines of fruit and vegetable stalls. “The revolution will start again. Maybe in a year, maybe in several.”

Naji says that the economy has gotten worse since the revolution.

“I had many seasons of unemployment,” he says. “I have had to pay the police, officials,” describing the difficulties presented to someone who wants to start a business.

Asked what he thought about visiting politicians, and whether their visits indicates policy changes towards less developed parts of the country, Naji is pessimistic.

“Most people here didn’t vote. It was a passing wind. [Ennahda leader Rached] Ghannouchi, Marzouki, they can’t manage this region. It’s a vicious cycle,” he says.

Room for optimism

However, many of the young people attending the weekend’s ceremonies remain optimistic about the future.

“We’re here to show that no one can steal history,” says Abdallah Hamzi, a 26-year-old English student at the University of Letters and Human Science in Kairouan. “The revolution is widespread.”

While Hamzi admits that unemployment and economic problems persist following the revolution, he says that the breaking of the fear barrier and ensuing political freedoms won by the revolution show that progress is being made.

“Joblessness is better than slavery,” he says.

Hamadi Khalifi, a 19-year-old first-year engineering student who also studies outside of Sidi Bouzid, says that he wishes to return to his hometown after his studies.

“It’s my dream to rebuild Sidi Bouzid,” he says.

“We are living something wonderful,” says Amin Beyaoui, a 29-year-old secondary school English teacher. “We have the honor of being the ones who presided over this revolution.”

Beyaoui recognizes that many problems still exist for most Sidi Bouzidans, but he believes that the new government should be given a chance to address the problems.

“We are still waiting for the factories they promised us. I hope that the new government will be able to solve some of [the economic problems],” he says.

“The mentality is changing at least,” says Jehem Issaoui, a 19-year-old English student at the University of Human Sciences in the coastal city of Sousse. “We have to build our country.”

Even the most hopeful Sidi Bouzidans say that if the goals of the revolution are not realized, the Tunisian people may have to rise up again in protest.

“If things don’t get better, we’ll demonstrate again. We have no fear anymore,” says Beyaoui.

As this journalist was leaving the town center, Beyaoui ran up to present a revolutionary poem he composed in English. The final stanza reads:

We woke at the charming song of a bird,

And the ugly cries of crows are no longer heard,

It was singing: “We are no longer slaves,

We are finally out of the foul caves…”

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