Tunisia: cradle of Arab Spring still awaiting change
Six months after a 26-year-old Tunisian fruit seller triggered a wave of protests across the Arab world, little has changed in the town where he was driven by despair to set himself on fire. In Sidi Bouzid, Mohammad Bouazizi’s one-man protest on December 17 sparked the riots that eventually toppled the country’s autocratic leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
Six months later many people in the town 270 km southwest of Tunis are proud of the movement that started in their town but are still waiting to see progress brought about by the revolt.
“For months, journalists the world over have been coming here and yet my situation hasn’t changed,” says Youssef, a seller of vegetables, to the approval of several other youths.
“Before, I made 100 dinars ($70) a week,” he says.
“Since the revolution, about 20 dinars,” he adds.
“They say it’s raining billions on Sidi Bouzid,” says another seller wryly. “I haven’t seen a penny of it.”
Hounded by Tunisian officialdom because he did not have a permit for his street stall, Bouazizi doused himself in petrol and set himself on fire in front of the local government headquarters.
Nearby, at a local meeting hall for young people, three members of the Al-Karama association – Arabic for dignity – are trying to figure out how to ensure that his protest was not in vain.
Their 36-year-old teacher Hichem Daly, says that in post-revolution Tunisia criticism is only valid if you have solutions to propose.
Their group wants state representatives, local authorities and activists to thrash out together what the region’s priorities should be, he says.
What is crucial, Hichem says, is that the people who face the problems should get involved, “so they can resolve it themselves.”
But post-revolution euphoria took a knock with the recent visit of eight ministers from the provisional government. “They came to announce mega-projects without consulting local people.”
“It’s a betrayal,” Hichem says.
There is a sense among many people that change is not coming fast enough. But a poll from the Sigma Institute nevertheless indicated that more than 70 percent of Tunisians were confident in the future.
“Political life has restarted, with the creation of numerous parties,” says Pierre Vermeren, a historian specializing in the region. “The country hasn’t tipped over into civil war or an excessive level of violence.”
And people feel a great sense of national pride that their uprising was the start of what is now known as the Arab Spring, adds Vermeren, who lectures at Paris’ Sorbonne University.
The country’s interim administration has finally settled on Oct. 23 as the date of elections to an assembly whose job it will be to draw up a new constitution.
But the political scene remains fragmented, with more than 90 parties and their leaders, many of them little known to the average Tunisian, fighting for attention.
For the moment, no leading contender has emerged, although the Islamist Ennahda movement, banned under the Ben Ali regime, appears to be relatively well organized.
Tunisia’s economic problems remain a real cause of concern, with the country struggling to revive one of its main earners, the tourism industry.
And the war across the border in Libya has cast its shadow over the country: about half a million refugees have fled to Tunisia to escape the fighting.
But with all the obstacles the country still has to overcome, blogger Lina Ben Mhenni sums up what for many is the most important fruit of the revolution. “We got rid of the fear.”