The town the revolution forgot

The town the revolution forgot
5 min read
17 December, 2014
Sidi Bouzid may be the cradle of the Arab Spring. But four years after the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, Bouzidis are caught between the glorious image of the revolution and today's economic grievances.
Sidi Bouzid has an official unemployment rate of 25 percent (AFP)
The faces on the nicely framed photographs are all cheerful. At Sidi Bouzid's cultural centre, an exhibition retraces the revolution. Inside, on an old couch earlier this week, Houcem and a few friends were chatting about the upcoming celebrations for the anniversary of the revolution.

On 17 December, 2010, these young men were the first to attempt to put out the fire on Mohamed Bouazizi's burning body. Bouazizi's self-immolation was an act of despair, taken after municipal authorities confiscated the street vendor's wares.

     Money is useless if you don't know how to spend it.

- Naoufel Jammali, MP
Four years later, Houcem, 33, one of the men who tried to save him, is unemployed and does free maintenance work at the cultural centre.

"You want to know about the problems here in Sidi Bouzid,"Houcem asked. He stood up and pulled out empty trouser pockets. "This is the problem".

Fertile land

An agricultural town in the overlooked and marginalised centre of Tunisia, Sidi Bouzid sprang to world fame when Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest at his lot. The self-immolation sparked the Tunisian revolution and Sidi Bouzid became known as the cradle of the Arab Spring.

But while the world now praises Tunisia's "success" in transitioning to a pluralistic democracy, a still bumpy road, Sidi Bouzid itself somehow missed out. The giant poster of Bouazizi, the "December 17" cultural centre and the old stone-battered police truck on patrol are all that is left of Sidi Bouzid's moment of glory. The region remains one of the poorest in the country. The official unemployment rate is 25 percent.

Yet despite what Houcem's empty pockets may suggest, Sidi Bouzid does have the means to develop. Thanks to its fertile soil, the area is Tunisia's main agricultural region. Since the revolution, the central government allocated a great amount of money to its development. However, less than half of that budget was actually invested.

"The local administration wasn't efficient enough to actually implement the projects," said Naoufel Jammali, a former minister for employment, now a local member of the new parliament for the Islamist Ennahdha Party.

"Money is useless if you don't know how to spend it," Jammali said.

Ennahdha easily won the first elections after the revolution, but lost out in October to the secular Nidaa Tounes Party, which comprises a significant number of members of the Tunisian old guard, including Beji Caid Essebsi, the party leader.

The Regional Commission for Agricultural Development is located in a nice building in the town centre. Someone has tagged a series of question marks on its walls. Sitting in his office nearby, Nizar Shoushene had questions too. He owns an agriculture engineering and consulting firm that helps local entrepreneurs. In his computer database, more than a hundred "serious and mature" projects await financing. But the banks won't lend, Nizar said.

For Sidi Bouzid to grow, Tunisia needs to decentralize, Nizar added. In the decades under former autocrats Habib Bourguiba and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the coastal regions grew richer while the interior regions were left behind. Bouzidians like Nizar do not trust central government.

That mistrust was reflected in last month's presidential elections. In the first round, Sidi Bouzid overwhelmingly voted for the independent businessman Hechmi Hamdi, originally from the region. He'd promised a free hospital and many new factories. They knew he couldn't provide, but it didn't matter. He was one of them.

Hechmi Hamdi finished fourth. In Sunday's presidential run-off, Bouzidis will have a hard time choosing between the two remaining candidates. The incumbent, Moncef Marzouki, is strong in southern regions. Essebsi holds the north. Neither inspire much trust in the centre of the country.

The Sidi Bouzid trademark

Bouzidians talk about their situation (video by Sandro Lutyens)

"Investment comes only with social stability," said Jammali, the parliamentarian. But such stability proved elusive at first.

After Ben Ali's ouster, Salafi groups grew stronger in Sidi Bouzid, recruiting among the unemployed youth and forcing bars to shut down. Weak and under-resourced police forces only seldom intervened. In August 2012, Bouzidians fought Salafi groups on the streets for several hours while police remained at their station.

"They were afraid," Thameur Baccari, 32, recalled. "Even when you called for help, they wouldn't come."

Baccari administers the only state-authorised koranic school in the region. Salafi militias used to threaten him because, he said, he "fought them on facebook".

In 2014, police forces started to crack down on extremist groups all over the country. People regained control of mosques they had lost to Salafi imams. Calm has now returned to Sidi Bouzid. But it comes too late, said Baccari.

"Companies were keen to invest in famous Sidi Bouzid after the revolution, but now they became established elsewhere, on the rich coast. Sidi Bouzid could have become a trade mark."

Despite its revolutionary fame, nothing has been done to attract tourists. Visitors remain on coastal beaches or fly directly over the sand dunes to Tozeur, in the south.

"In England, they created a tour following the footsteps of Jack the Ripper. Why couldn't we do the same with Mohamed Bouazizi," asked Jammali. "We have the image of a town that changed the world, and that trademark must be preserved."

Around Mohamed Bouazizi's giant poster, workers were this week building a stage for celebrations to mark the start of the revolution. But every year, the crowd is thinner. On the poster, dozens of photos from Spain, Yemen or Egypt praise the "revolutionary mobility" that came from Bouzid.

Sidi Bouzid ignited a spark that went around the world. But it has yet to reap the harvest.