Some Tunisians still waiting for revolution

As Tunisia remembers Mohamed Bouazizi, the catalyst for the 2011 uprising, some people say things haven’t changed.

The graffiti above the man sleeping on the street in Sidi Bouzid reads 'From the free of Jenduba to the free of the fighting Sidi Bouzid' [Mohamed M'dalla/Al Jazeera]

Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia – On December 17, this town turns out to commemorate the anniversary of the day Mohamed Bouazizi, a young street vendor, set himself ablaze in protest of treatment from local authorities. His act soon entered popular iconography as the catalyst of the 2011 uprising that ousted Tunisia’s former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Last year, president Moncef Marzouki and National Constituent Assembly (NCA) head Mustapha Ben Jaafar’s speeches at the event were met with booing and even rocks thrown from the crowd.

Marzouki was immediately questioned by onlookers about government inaction; Ben Jafaar’s speech was met with chants of “degage,” or “get out”. After he left the podium, attendees threw stones at the stage before the politicians were escorted out by security officials.

As the third anniversary of Bouazizi’s immolation rounds the corner, little has changed in Sidi Bouzid.

In a region long under-funded by the Tunisian government, residents say their lot has actually worsened since the revolution.

After three years there have been no positive developments.

by - Lazhar Gharbi, a member of Sidi Bouzid's December 17 planning committee and the UGTT labor union

The national unemployment rate has hovered between 15 and 17 percent for the past three years, with youth unemployment sitting at 22 percent in 2010. The same year, for non-coastal regions like Sidi Bouzid, youth unemployment hit 34.5 percent, according to the Tunisia’s National Institute of Statistics.

Members of the Tunisian government have pledged to address the bleak economic outlook in the region. In November, the government promised to open faculties of medicine in three governorates, including Sidi Bouzid. Still, in a town where residents complain about the usability of major roads, residents say that what the region needs is jobs and infrastructure.

“There’s no work in Sidi Bouzid,” said Imen Jaballi, a 22 year-old student of French in Kairouan. “People either leave or sit at home.”

“Most of my friends leave to study for their bachelors. They go to Sousse, Tunis, Kairouan or Gabes,” all larger, more developed cities.

Jaballi, who wants to work as a professor, says she knows she will have to leave Sidi Bouzid.

Unemployment is rampant among the highly educated in Tunisia, according the NIS data. As of May 2011, the unemployment rate of young persons with at least some collegiate education was 29 percent. Job creation remains bleak.

According to Sidi Bouzid residents, difficulties of economy, security, and politics during the transitional period have only exacerbated the regional disparities.

“After three years there have been no positive developments,” said Lazhar Gharbi, a member of both Sidi Bouzid’s December 17 planning committee and the UGTT labor union. In fact, he said, “There have been negative developments with criminality, terrorism, and smuggling.”

Clashes with police

Sidi Bouzid has made recent headlines for claims of arbitrary arrests, clashes between the police and citizens, and the 2012 ransacking and closure of a local hotel that served alcohol.

In October, six national guards and one police officer was killed in a counter-terrorism operation in the governorate, an act of violence that temporarily derailed Tunisia’s ongoing political talks.

“We need a Marshall plan in Sidi Bouzid,” Gharbi insisted. “The state must take initiative and do something to encourage Tunisian and foreign investors.”

Gharbi added that, “For investment to come to Sidi Bouzid, we need better infrastructure. There must be good roads, modern telecommunication technology and signal, hotels.”

Jaballi, however, seems to think the government has turned a willingly blind eye to the region.

“The government doesn’t want to get involved in Sidi Bouzid because they’re afraid [involvement] will create chaos,” she said.

Since the start of 2012, the governorate has seen three governors, two of whom were ousted by popular protests. This instability at the regional level is underscored by uncertainty in Tunisia’s national political scene.

Three separate administrations have taken the helm since the ouster of Ben Ali in 2011. The current government, headed by Marzouki, Ben Jaafar, and current prime minister Ali Laarayedh, has faced calls to resign since June of this year. The demands for resignation intensified after the July assassination of Mohamed Brahmi, an opposition NCA member.

On December 14, the government was preparing to approve a fourth, caretaker administration, headed by current Minister of Industry Mehdi Jomaa. The political talks meant to usher in this caretaker government have repeatedly been delayed or fallen just short of disintegration due to security concerns, popular unrest, and disagreements between political parties.

This political tension has played itself out in Sidi Bouzid’s annual commemoration of Bouazizi’s martyrdom, as seen during last year’s incidents.

At the time, the Tunisian government was nearly two months behind on their self-imposed deadline to finish the country’s draft constitution. A November anti-government protest in Siliana was met with violent crackdown from police.

50 years of dictatorship

Marzouki told attendees of the December 17 festival that he understood their fear and frustration but that the government is “dealing with an aftermath of 50 years of dictatorship that [it] cannot fix in 12 months”.

Residents had sacked governor Amara Tlijani just a few months before Marzouki and Ben Jafaar took the stage and were subsequently booed out of town.

“The youth who did the revolution were optimistic, that this revolution would lead to many things, but this was a false promise,” said Gharbi. “December 17, 2012 was their answer.”

Leading political party Ennahdha denounced the actions at the 2012 festival, saying that such unrest would quell the exact sort of investment that Sidi Bouzid residents say they seek. Members of government also blamed opposition parties, rather than individual citizens, for orchestrating the protests.

This year, two separate events are planned to take place on December 17; one organized by major unions UGTT and UTICA, the leftist Popular Front, and civil society organizations, and one officially sanctioned programme, which will feature remarks from government officials as well as artistic performances.

Marzouki has confirmed his attendance, according to organizers.

“Politics have divided Sidi Bouzid,” says Aida Daly, an organizer of this year’s official December 17 programme. “It will be impossible to repeat the first [anniversary].”

“There is nothing to celebrate” this year, Daly added. “After the revolution, we still see martyrs; police and security officers who died because of violence and terrorism.”

Part of the UGTT-backed programme will be what organizers are calling a peaceful march to express loyalty to the martyr’s of the revolution. The committee has designated public spaces in Sidi Bouzid to be named in memorial of Mohamed Brahmi, who was assassinated this year.

As for unrest, both Gharbi and Daly acknowledged the tense political tone underlying the planned events; Daly citing whispers of protest in Sidi Bouzid, and Gharbi pledging them. and expressing that the political climate affects these programmes.

“This year, like last year, the festival will have a stamp of politics,” said Daly, adding, “I don’t imagine there will be more promises this year.”

Robert Joyce and Mohamed M’dalla contributed reporting.

Source: Al Jazeera