Tunisia: The battle of Sidi Bouzid

Poor economic policies have led to widespread distress as Tunisia’s youth take their frustrations to the streets.

If 26-year-old Bouazizi survives his horrific burns, he will live with physical and emotional pain the rest of his life
If 26-year-old Bouazizi survives his horrific burns, he will live with physical and emotional pain the rest of his life

What happened to the state? Where did civil society go? Why is there only silence from Development Minister Mohamed Nouri Jouini?

Before even attempting to answer each one of those questions, these seemingly dysfunctional institutions need to be inspected more closely in order to see the extent to which they share responsibility for the suicidal protests of despair by Tunisia’s youth.

This is not the time for scoring political points. What Wikileaks says or does not say about Tunisia’s ruling family serves no purpose here. This is a time for reflection on Tunisia’s own “wretched of the earth” – the “khobz-istes” of Sidi Bouzid and the country’s disenfranchised youth.

The Khobz-istes strike back

Putting Rousseau’s notion of a “social contract” and Arab politics in the same phrase is to ask for an oxymoron. Tunisia’s politics is no exception. But there is another type of contract which has nothing to do with Rousseau: The “bread contract” – bread in parts of Tunisia and Egypt are called “eish”, dear “life” itself.

The tacit contract that has defined the North African country since its independence in 1956 is the “bread” provision – mostly subsidies – in return for political deference. With modest resources, Tunisia has historically funded subsidies of strategic commodities – bread, sugar, tea, coffee, kerosene – and education, health, housing in some cases, and even recreational activities, such as sport.

The National Solidarity Fund and the National Employment Fund, still under centralised control, have had some successes. They have partly shifted the burden of providence from the state to society.

Tunisians dug into their pockets to volunteer what little of their non-disposable income they have to the cause of poverty alleviation, and improvements of the so-called “shadow zones” (bidon-villes), the misery belt suffocating the rich towns and suburbs.

But even this system of quid pro quo bread and political deference has failed many Tunisians, leaving many hopeless and jobless.

Bouazizi’s letter to President Bin Ali

It is a national tragedy when the youth – literally the future – commit suicide to make a point.

The despair must have been unimaginable when a university graduate, 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi, was prevented from earning an honest living peddling fruits and vegetables. It is humiliating enough to do that.

He doused himself in petrol and set himself aflame on December 17. If he survives his horrific burns, he will now live with physical and emotional pain for the rest of his life.

Irrational as it might have been, it was a cry for help, and a message to his state and his president to act.

The police tend to intercept these cries for help, seemingly able to diagnose all the psychological damage done to tens of thousands of Bouazizis with the prescription of a handy baton and a badge. But for the local authorities to confiscate his cart or stall is to add insult to injury.

Bouazizi’s message was seconded by another suicidal signature of another young man in his mid-twenties, Lahseen Naji, who electrocuted himself in despair of “hunger and joblessness”. A third, Ramzi Al-Abboudi, under the burden of business debt, ironically made possible by the country’s micro-credit solidarity programme, killed himself.

Added to these signatures to Bouazizi’s letter to Mr Bin Ali are the spontaneous riots of Sidi Bouzid and surrounding towns.

Tunisia’s long winter of discontent

Like many developing states, Tunisia jumped onto the “Washington consensus” bandwagon, which led to fiscal, political and social adjustments.

This led to a decrease in subsidies, privatisation, poor convertibility of the dinar, vast land sales with foreign ownership of real estate, tourist resort leasing, nouveaux riches consumption patterns, big business commissions, business monopolies and corruption.

Inevitably, the clouds gathering over the skies of Tunisia’s winter of discontent have started the tell-tale signs of a deluge of ills symptomatic of a quasi-“banana republic”.

The marginalisation of the agrarian and arid central and southern areas will continue unabated. Some of this is due to nature (poor soil and low rainfall), and some to nurture (state neglect and weak entrepreneurship by Tunisia’s industrial and commercial elites).

The state is a control-freak to the point that it disallows the existence of any hint of an informal economy. There is one in Italy – even in America – but not in Tunisia. If the state is partly failing in its provision of jobs, then it is unwise to ban informal trade and work.

A youth empowered by education but disempowered by marginalisation can be the spark that ignites social upheaval and social tension.

In Tunisia, marginalisation is today being translated into irrational and tragic suicides. But tomorrow these can be the triggers of a different type of suicides.

Does Minister Jouini want to be held responsible for this?

‘North’ vs ‘South’

A stroll in the boulevards, leisure and sports centres, rich esplanades and shopping malls of the green coastal areas reveals a Tunisia that looks and feels like a land of geniality, of delight – in official propaganda parlance, a “model” of development worthy of emulation.

The models of development and distribution applied to the country’s coastal and northern cities, towns and suburbs are nowhere to be seen in the centre or the south. The riots of Sidi Bouzid and surrounding towns call into question years of uneven development and misdistribution.

They challenge policymakers to rethink redistributive justice and regional development urgently.

But today the notion of “total state” and “total politics” may not be apt for successful social engineering and re-distribution. Total control can translate into a loss of control. The signs are there.

From the central phosphates Basin towns via Sidi Bouzid to Ben Guerdane, the cracks on the current developmental model are showing.

The puzzle of Tunisia is that it insists upon belt-fastening whist, for a while, cruising at a high altitude (i.e. stability, development). It is time to unfasten belts and let society, NGOs, entrepreneurs, the informal economy, political parties, local initiatives, and autonomous charities share the burden of development with the state.

The State: What to do?

If Mr Ben Ali is not sacking his development minister, then he needs to demand a new course of action from his foreign, development, employment and education ministers, along with new, implementable policies.

Alternatively, he can face the gale of a long winter of discontent, because a paltry eight million Euros will not satisfy the needs of Sidi Bouzid and surrounding towns.

Sidi Bouzid has been kind to Tunisia by producing high-quality agricultural produce, like milk. The Tunisian government can pay back this debt in the form of just economic and civic redistribution to the region’s youth.

Perhaps Tunisia has to rethink their heavy and sole reliance on the European Union. With the Union of the Mediterranean nearly defunct, and the EU openly favouring eastern European labour, Libya and the Arab Gulf may be able to relieve the long queues of the jobless. This works for the other Arab nations, so why not Tunisia? Tunisia can adjust too.

The president must at once lift the siege on Sidi Bouzid, and show courage by visiting these marginalised towns himself. It is high time Mr Bin Ali revamped his government with new blood.

Maybe non-ruling party independents and other competent figures can pluralise the pool of ideas available to him.

Finally, the president is strongly advised to recall a simple truth and a time-hardened adage: a fight against those who have nothing to lose is unwinnable.

Civil society and the opposition

The return of the Khobz-istes must not be turned into political football. Both the opposition and the state have failed Sidi Bouzid and Tunisia’s jobless youth. The path forward is not through propaganda and hollow lectures.

Rather, youth calls of despair for civic engagement should be heeded in Tunisia, not punished with political absence or exile. They need practical solutions, not slogans.

This should be a moment for all the Bouazizis of Tunisia. If need be, pay the price of peaceful democratic struggle. Indefinite absence and exile do not earn democracy but animosity.

It is not a moment about Moncef Marzouki, Nahdah or the ruling party. From the comfortable distance of Paris and London, the exiled opposition is as remote from Tunisia’s people as the incompetent ministries who seem to have missed socioeconomic problems right under their noses.

Together with the state, and entrepreneurs, they can think of specific solidarity funds for these regions, specific investment, job searches in the Arab Gulf, or even bursaries for those willing to continue with higher education.

Able expatriates and local civil society can be part of the solution. Only thus they will also learn how to reformulate the political equation inside Tunisia.

The Battle of Sidi Bouzid redux

In 1943 Sidi Bouzid was the theatre of another battle: a battle for freedom by the Allied forces against the Nazis.

Today it is the theatre of another battle. A battle for freedom from hunger.

Bouazizi comes to mind when reading the words from Tunisia’s national anthem: “We die, we die, so that the homeland lives.”

Minister Jouini must contemplate the real and intended meaning of these words for the remainder of his tenure in the Ministry of Development (of under-development) in the areas he, his aides, and their predecessors have for so long neglected.

Lest graduate Bouazizi and other marginals are forgotten, state and society must hold up a mirror to see whether the face of misdistribution and uneven development today reflects an alien value of moral decay; ‘We live, we live, so that the homeland dies…’

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter and author of Arab Democratisation: Elections without Democracy and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses, forthcoming Hamas and the Political Process.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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