Birthplace of Tunisia's revolution skeptical

October 23, 2011 - 1:31 PM
Tunisia Elections

A man looks at electoral posters on a wall in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, where the protests that lit the Arab world began, Wednesday Oct. 19, 2011, ahead of the landmark Oct. 23 election for a constitutional body that will determine the future of this North African nation which overthrew its longtime dictator in January. (AP Photo/Amine Landoulsi)

SIDI BOUZID, Tunisia (AP) — The cafes around Sidi Bouzid's main square are filled with young unemployed men, sipping away the afternoon, suspiciously watching the circling cars promoting electoral candidates.

In the grassy square of the town where Tunisia's revolution began — and the Arab Spring was born — lie the torn remnants of election literature from the many parties competing in Sunday's landmark elections.

Ten months after an anguished fruitseller in Tunisia's arid and impoverished interior set himself on fire and sparked a string of uprisings across the Middle East that continue to this day, the Tunisians of Sidi Bouzid and neighboring Kasserine want their revolution back, and fear they will once again be marginalized by the wealthy cities of the coast.

"No to the marginalization of the Sidi revolution," says the graffiti scrawled on a wall near the post office, just yards (meters) from the town hall where Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest police harassment on Dec. 17.

While much of the country marks the revolution by the Jan. 14 flight of longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to Saudi Arabia after a 23-year corruption-filled rule, the people in Sidi Bouzid hold fast to the date that started it all.

"The revolution began on Dec. 17 and while some goals were achieved, we can't stop there — Jan. 14 is a false date," said Slimane Rouissy, a high school teacher and one of the original bloggers who reported the events of Sidi Bouzid to the rest of Tunisia and later the world. "The system has absorbed the revolution for its own ends."

Across Tunisia, there is frustration at the slow pace of change in the country, especially as the economy grinds to a halt amid post-revolutionary turmoil and soaring prices, in part due to the crisis in neighboring Libya — where dictator Moammar Gadhafi was captured and killed on Thursday.

Growth in GDP has gone from 3.7 percent in 2010 to zero, if not negative for this year, according to the government, and youth unemployment is at 23 percent.

People are also bewildered by the startling transition from what was practically a one-party state to a startling multiplicity of parties and a complex election.

Voters are not choosing a president, like they are used to, but a kind of parliament that will write a constitution and choose an interim government before another set of elections in about a year. Some electoral districts have between 80 to 100 lists of candidates to choose from.

The very revolution that freed the people from dictatorship has made their life harder and now they only have the abstract promise of the new constituent assembly to comfort them.

"Public opinion polling showed there was some uncertainty in people's minds about what they were electing," said Scott Mastic, part of a delegation from the International Republican Institute observing the elections. "It's a whole new assembly and process, so you'd expect there to be some confusion in people's minds."

But for the people of Tunisia's interior, which resembles the American southwest with its austere mountains and groves of cactus marking out olive orchards, there is a sense of special entitlement, not just because they started the uprising, but because they have been historically neglected.

Tunisia's tourism and industry are concentrated along the picturesque coast, in popular resort towns like Sousse or Sfax, the economic capital — which is where many people in Sidi Bouzid head to for jobs.

Many are afraid history is repeating itself, noting that even though most of the dead from the struggle for independence from France in the 1950s came from this region, they didn't benefit afterward.

"They are disappointed and feel they have been marginalized for the second time, they feel they have been exploited," said Aziz Bouazizi, a distant relative to the man who set himself on fire. "They don't want the same thing to happen."

The anthropologist is part of a campaign calling for a boycott because they feel the elections and the revolution have been co-opted, he explained, sitting amid the torn election pamphlets in Sidi Bouzid's main square.

"The people that made the revolution, the activists that were in the streets, none of them are in the lists," he said.

There is also no monument marking the spot where Bouazizi set himself on fire, even while protesters in New York's Wall Street evoke his name and Paris has named a square after him.

His brother Salem said what began as an economic revolution has turned into a struggle for political spoils.

"It has become a political revolution with parties chasing after political positions, while all the people's problems remain," he said from Sfax.

For the aspiring candidates going door to door, this kind of suspicion and cynicism is difficult to overcome.

Mohammed Rehimi, of the Kasserine branch of the left-wing National Democratic Movement Party, explained that it would be easier if they had something concrete from the current caretaker government to show the people.

"Give us a message so we can see the light at the end of the tunnel," said the graying lawyer, who said he had worked clandestinely against the previous regime. "But we have seen nothing so far."

The party's cramped offices overlooking the town square bustle with activity as they blast songs out the window and prepare to pass out flyers.

It was here that some of the worst fighting of the uprising took place in the immediate aftermath of Bouazizi's immolation, and despair is running high.

Just a month earlier five unemployed teachers threatened to hang themselves in front of the regional education office and had to be hospitalized after going through with it.

"The prime minister never even visited Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid, the least he could do is visit the area that started the revolution," said Rehimi.

Down the road some 30 miles (50 kilometers) in the hilly town of Thala, Belgacem Saihi has been talking to voters for the Islamist Ennahda Party, the best organized movement in the country.

He, too, said getting the locals to believe in the process has not been easy, especially after years of sham elections and official promises of reform that never took place.

"It is a problem of political mentality, it is difficult after 23 years of depoliticization, in six months to convince people to participate," said the young bearded activist, dressed in jeans and sipping mint tea at a street-side cafe.

Behind him rears the blackened carcass of the Thala police station, which was assaulted and burned out by residents in January during the uprising.

Inside, a young man wrongly imprisoned in the station holds a lonely sit-in demanding back the job he lost 10 months ago when police arrested him.

Saihi believes it is a national duty to vote and the elections and the new government will bring prosperity back to this depressed region, though like many others, he fears for the consequences if it doesn't.

"If nothing happens, there will be another revolution," he said, his brilliant smile suddenly dimming. "The Tunisian people, especially in Thala and Sidi Bouzid, now have a kind of solution to their problems, if things don't work, they can revolt."