Sidi Bouzid: Hardship bites where Arab Spring began

Seven years on after Bouazizi set himself on fire, economic stagnation and widespread discontent persist in Sidi Bouzid.

Bouazizi Monument Tunisia
A monument to Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself alight in 2011 in protest [Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/Al Jazeera]

Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia – Akram Hamdi says he has sent out nearly three dozen resumes.

But the 25-year-old is still unemployed, nearly two years after he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business economics from the University of Sfax, on the Tunisian coast.

“It destroys me psychologically,” Hamdi told Al Jazeera from a dimly lit cafe in Sidi Bouzid, where at 1:30 in the afternoon, he was having a coffee alongside two friends.

Of the three young men, only one currently has a steady job.

“The situation since the revolution is worsening. [The government] destroyed us, they destroyed the country,” Hamdi said.

This is where the Tunisian revolution began, when 26-year-old fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight in protest against the harassment and indignities he faced daily.

His act of desperation pushed thousands of Tunisians into the streets, forced out long-time Tunisian President Zinedine El Abidine Ben Ali and led to a series of popular uprisings that toppled leaders across the Arab world.

But exactly seven years after Ben Ali stepped down on January 14, 2011, Sidi Bouzid remains in the grips of severe economic hardship.

For other people maybe things changed since the revolution but for me, nothing changed

by Ismail Aloui

In fact, many people say things are worse than before.

“Sidi Bouzid should be moving forward. It was the spark of the revolution, but other cities progressed and Sidi Bouzid stayed the same,” said Zaineb, 22, who only gave Al Jazeera her first name.

“We used to have three classes in society, but now there will only be the rich and the poor,” added her friend, Houiem, 25.

Neglected region

Located in the centre of Tunisia, Sidi Bouzid has long been economically neglected, far from cities on the coast or the capital, Tunis, which have traditionally benefitted from more economic development.

The national unemployment rate among university graduates sits at around 30 percent, according to United Nations figures. But in Sidi Bouzid, that number has recently been estimated to be closer to 45 percent, if not higher.

Frustration among unemployed graduates has been growing in recent years and protests demanding more public sector jobs and other employment opportunities are common.

At least 7,000 university graduates are without jobs in Sidi Bouzid alone, a student union leader in the city told local media in 2016.

“Statistics show that the level of poverty has been increasing … there is despair, mainly among youth, who represent about 25 percent of the whole population,” explained Massoud Romdhani, president of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights.

Romdhani told Al Jazeera that “social justice and dignity were the key demands” of the Tunisian revolution. People in the country’s interior towns, in particular, who had “been neglected for such a long time … felt that it was their time to change things”.

But the economic model that prevailed after Ben Ali’s fall did not lead to any real development in the central region, he said.

“There is no language of hope on the part of the government or on the part of the opposition,” Romdhani said.

“I know that the expectations are high and the stakes are high, but we need also a certain type of leadership that gives a bit of hope to these young people.”

Akram Hamdi is still unemployed, nearly two years after he graduated with a bachelor's degree in business economics in Tunisia [Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/Al Jazeera]
Akram Hamdi is still unemployed, nearly two years after he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business economics in Tunisia [Jillian Kestler-D’Amours/Al Jazeera]

Prices going up

Hajer Laifi, a 32-year-old primary school teacher, said the revolution made little difference in people’s daily lives.

“Instead, [the situation is] worsening. Prices are getting very high,” she said, clutching a plastic bag filled with leafy green vegetables from the market.

The price of produce has dropped slightly compared with last week, however, Laifi conceded. Peppers cost 2.5 Tunisian dinars ($1) a kilogramme (kg) last week and now they are down to 2 dinars a kg, while tomatoes have gone from 1.4 dinars ($0.57) to 0.8 dinars a kg, she said.

A recent rise in the prices of basic goods and services as a result of a new budgetary law for 2018 pushed hundreds into the streets across the country this month.

Under the banner “Fech Nestannew” (What are we waiting for?), civil society groups and human rights activists have called for the finance law to be scrapped.

But for the most part, the protests remain modest in size. On Saturday, a march organised by the Popular Front, an opposition party that supports the Fech Nestannew movement, blocked traffic on the main road in Sidi Bouzid.

A few dozen people marched through the city, chanting for the fall of the government.

They quickly dispersed after reaching a statue downtown that was erected in 2011 to commemorate Bouazizi’s self-immolation.

The beige vendors’ cart, with a red and white Tunisian flag affixed above it, is now covered in graffiti bearing the slogans of the anti-austerity protests.

While the number of public protests held in Tunisia doubled between 2015 and 2017, according to Romdhani, widespread frustration over the economy has also pushed some Tunisian youth towards “extremist” groups.

Others have chosen to leave the country altogether, while many have rejected politics altogether: less than three percent of Tunisian youth belong to political parties, he said.

“Whether the budget is the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Romdhani added, referring to this month’s anti-austerity protests, “this is only the [tip] of the iceberg”.

‘Nothing changed’

Even those with jobs say they are struggling to make ends meet.

Ismail Aloui, 25, makes 300 dinars every month working as a mechanic at a car body shop.

“It’s not enough,” he said, explaining that some months, as much as half his salary goes to paying for electricity and water alone.

His father no longer gets a retirement pension, so he and his siblings shoulder most of the expenses.

People are losing hope younger. They think they should stop studying because they have no hope

by Fadi Mesbahi, 22-year-old supermarket worker

“For other people maybe things changed since the revolution”, Aloui told Al Jazeera, standing in the shade along Sidi Bouzid’s main road, “but for me, nothing changed.

“I’m still at the same level.”

Originally from Sidi Bouzid, Fadi Mesbahi works at a supermarket in the town of Nabeul, a coastal city about 200km from his hometown.

“People are losing hope younger,” the 22-year-old told Al Jazeera, a few steps from the statue commemorating Mohamed Bouazizi. “They think they should stop studying because they have no hope” to find employment.

Meanwhile, Hamdi, the unemployed graduate, said he takes odd jobs in construction to help his family make ends meet.

His father works in agriculture and brings home only 400 Tunisian dinars every month. But with an older brother and four younger sisters and the rise in prices, “that won’t be enough”, he said.

“Given that we have electricity to pay, water, taxes,” he explained, trailing off.

“To wake up in the morning and have to ask your father for money” in these circumstances, he added, “it’s not a good feeling”. 

Source: Al Jazeera