Katharina Pfannkuch
Last updated: 7 May, 2013

Disappointed revolutionaries

A young Tunisian fruit seller challenged the entire Arab world with his self-immolation in the town of Sidi Bouzid. Your Middle East has visited the place where the so-called Arab Spring began.

Friday afternoon in Sidi Bouzid, shortly after noon prayer. Many people are on the move; women strolling down the long main street of the town that counts 40,000 inhabitants, kids playing on the small market square, men sitting in sidewalk cafés.

Bahri, a stocky man in his early 60, whose deep and husky voice indicates many Tunisian cigarettes, is one of those men. The question of whether the streets are that busy because the weekend starts today and people are having some free time makes the retired teacher laugh.

“Weekend? No, it looks almost every day like this here. Many people here are unemployed. They just have nothing to do.”

Vigorously, Bahri folds the newspaper in front of him. “These people don’t care about us,” he says, pointing to a photo of the reigning Tunisian parliament. “They owe it to us that they came to power. And now they want to forget us.”

Bahri lights a cigarette and points to the other side of the street – to Mohamed Bouazizi’s memorial, the man who set himself on fire two years ago. “What did he die for, what did so many young people fight for?” Bahri murmurs, shaking his head.

The monument Bahri is looking at shows an oversized fruit vendor’s cart, surrounded by overturned chairs – symbol of the later fall of Ben Ali’s regime. Here, in front of the city hall of Sidi Bouzid, on 17 December 2010, the 27-years old fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire, out of despair over its economic situation. With his act, Bouazizi sparked a wave of indignation and rage that initially spread from Sidi Bouzid to the capital Tunis and finally captured the entire Arab world.

Anyone who promises short-term solutions to the problems of this region lies

“It all started here,” says Chokri Ben Ahmed. The 26-year-old comes from Sidi Bouzid and experienced the events two years ago up close. There are worlds between the spruced capital Tunis, about 300 kilometers away, with its boulevards, shopping malls and palm gardens and the small Sidi Bouzid, in the arid inland mountain valley of Jebel El Kbar, where the finery seems to crumble from every house and every wall.

“For us, nothing has improved,” says Chokri Ben Ahmed. “On the contrary. The economic situation is worse than two years ago.”

The unemployment rate in the governorate of Sidi Bouzid is 19 percent, only 20 percent of the national development budget goes to the inland cities. In addition, since 2011, the entire Tunisian economy is suffering an inflation rate of 6 percent, and the trend is rising. So what about the overthrow of Ben Ali, the newly gained political freedom?

“What is political freedom good for, if the people cannot afford bread?” answers Chokri Ben Ahmed. “It’s been a long time since we have lost interest in politics. What matters for us is material security and economic perspectives. And you don’t find them in Sidi Bouzid. This is why so many young people leave the town.”

Lotfi Saibi, a member of the secular opposition party Al-Joumhouri, can understand this reaction. “The situation in Sidi Bouzid is serious. Many companies close, more and more workers lose their jobs.”

The 52-year-old Saibi comes from the village Jelma, just a few kilometers away from Sidi Bouzid. Over 30 years ago, he left Tunisia and became a successful entrepreneur and university teacher in the United States. After the fall of Ben Ali in 2011, Saibi returned to Tunisia in order to help in restructuring of the country. But this is not easy, especially in his hometown.

“Citizens of Sidi Bouzid are among the most bitter of the entire country. They feel they had suffered the most under Ben Ali, and now continue to do so, in spite of leading the uprising for dignity.”

Although Saibi himself comes from the region, he has been confronted with scepticism. “There is a lot of mistrust. The political parties are accused of exploiting the revolution only for their own benefit. People in this region feel that political parties and leaders have taken over their cause and turned it into theirs.”

“The uprising has been turned into a discussion about liberal and religious issues instead of socio-economic issues, as it was intended to be. Most of all, this social uprising for social justice has turned into an ideological wrestling and a race to power, with the people as pawns, ready to be sacrificed.”

Saibi does not exclude his own party from his criticism, saying that Al-Joumhouri was not active enough in the region.

“We have to talk more with the people. Don’t forget that the illiteracy rate in Sidi Bouzid and the surrounding area is still extremely high – therefore, it is not enough to hang election posters and distribute program brochures.”

His own election campaign two years ago in the region failed because of not gaining enough voices – and because of Saibi’s democratic ideals.

“I could have bought votes, but I rejected this opportunity. If someone votes for me, I want him to do this because he is convinced of my political agenda,” he says.

“Of course you have to fight the practice of buying votes, but at the same time, you have to take into consideration the desperate economic situation of the people here and their negative experiences with elections under Ben Ali. Then you understand why they offered to buy their votes.”

Since 2011, Saibi has been fighting in numerous projects to creating awareness of citizenship and democratic values, especially among young people. But it is not an easy fight. About 400.000 people live in the entire governorate of Sidi Bouzid, and there are 316 primary schools and 64 secondary schools.

In some of these schools, pupils are educated under catastrophic conditions; leaking windows, not enough tables and chairs, only few computers and very often no access to the internet make the start into their future difficult for the youth of the region.

“The families of these children have other worries than discussions about democracy and secularism,” says Lotfi Saibi. In addition, there is competition for the attention as religious extremism has arrived in Sidi Bouzid.

Some disappointed people turn away from politics – and often seek for solutions to their problems in religion. At the end of the main street of Sidi Bouzid, the dome of a giant mosque rises, one of the few new and well-kept buildings in the city. As throughout the country, Salafists are also active in Sidi Bouzid. They receive financial support from abroad.

The Salafists are very decisive in making clear what they consider as acceptable and what not; in February, some teenagers wanted to perform the famous Harlem Shake on the grounds of their school and were attacked by Salafists. They called the Harlem Shake “a Western dance of the infidels” and put an end to the dance performance.

“The Salafists? I disapprove them as much as the politicians,” says the retired teacher Bahri and stubs out his cigarette. “It’s the same point, they don’t care about us, the citizens. They just care about their own power.”

Especially to young men, the offers of the religious extremists often appear as a way out of their dead-end situation. Lotfi Saibi warns against such reactions.

“Anyone who promises short-term solutions to the problems of this region lies.” But the politician is still hopeful: “If we respond better to the people, if we really listen to them and work with them, then the situation may improve on the long term, in Sidi Bouzid and in the rest of the country.”

The roads are emptying slowly. From the end of the road the call to prayer arises. Some men go slowly to the mosque; a mother calls impatiently on her children who still play in the marketplace. A young couple is sitting on a bench in front of Mohamed Bouazizi’s memorial, looking silently into the evening sun. Some leaves fallen from the trees are whirled by the wind through the air. It’s a cold Friday night in Sidi Bouzid, the place where the so-called Arab Spring began.