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Hopes lie crushed as Tunisians mark a decade since revolution

  • Published at 08:30 pm December 17th, 2020
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A girl walks past a memorial for Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor who set himself alight 10 years ago on December 17, 2010, in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia December 8, 2020. Graffiti reads: "The people want". Picture taken December 8, 2020 Reuters

‘People are worse and worse off after 10 years of nothing’

Ten years since the intoxicating early days of Tunisia's revolution, dreams for a better future lie crushed, and in the rural town where it began, the mood on Thursday was one of anger rather than hope.

It was in Sidi Bouzid that Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit and vegetable salesman angered by police harassment, set himself alight on December 17, 2010.

His act sparked an unprecedented uprising that left some 300 dead but toppled long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, whose flight to exile in Saudi Arabia the next month sparked uprisings across the Arab world.

The North African country has been praised for its democratic progress.

But many Tunisians remain angry at a political class seen as corrupt and unable — or unwilling — to tackle the country's deep social problems and create much-needed jobs.

And rather than festivities marking the end of the dictatorship, the anniversary of Bouazizi's self-immolation sees annual protests against the post-Ben Ali regime.

Security was tight in central Tunis on Thursday, with armed police checking bags at the entrance to the iconic central boulevard of Bourguiba Avenue and drones monitoring from above.

And in central Sidi Bouzid, hundreds of people demonstrated around a sculpture of Bouazizi's handcart, shouting "work is a right, you bunch of thieves!"

"Every year we see the same angry scenes repeat themselves," said lawyer Farouk Jaziri.

"People are worse and worse off after 10 years of nothing."

'Sense of failure'

Away from the main square, most Sidi Bouzid residents expressed little interest in the protest.

Analyst Hamza Meddeb said that despite Tunisia's hard-won political freedoms, "10 years on from the revolution, there's a real sense of failure”.

The political class, more fragmented than ever since parliamentary elections last year, is paralyzed by bitter infighting.

That has prevented it from tackling urgent social and economic problems, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Tunisia suffers unemployment above 15% nationally, disproportionately hitting young people in the long-marginalized interior.

A picture of Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor who set himself alight 10 years ago on December 17, 2010, is displayed on the post office building in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia December 8, 2020. Picture taken December 8, 2020 | Reuters

Salaries have been devalued by inflation, while political instability has crushed hopes for fundamental reforms.

The economic situation has pushed many others to make death-defying bids to reach Europe, and Tunisians have been one of the largest contingents of jihadists fighting in Syria's civil war.

A string of deadly jihadist attacks in 2015 devastated the all-important tourism sector. 

And while improved security had seen visitor numbers bounce back, hotels and tour operators have been battered once again by the coronavirus pandemic. 

No official visits to Sidi Bouzid have been announced — even by President Kais Saied, elected in October 2019 on the revolutionary slogan "the people want".

His office said on Wednesday evening he would not visit the town due to "urgent commitments".

But one demonstrator in his 30s told AFP: "We don't care whether he visits. What will he bring to the town?"

'Tired of waiting'

Last week, Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi was met with cries of "resign!" when he visited the north-western city of Jendouba to pay his respects to a young doctor who died in an accident in a hospital lift-shaft.

The tragedy, which prompted thousands of medics to protest in Tunis, was widely blamed on official corruption and indifference.

Strikes, road blockages and protests have mushroomed in recent weeks, demanding more jobs and investment, better work conditions and improvements to crumbling public services. 

"We've stopped expecting anything from the political class," said Sidi Bouzid resident Jamel Bouzidi. "We're tired of waiting."

Tunisia's strongest party, Islamist-inspired Ennahdha, has struggled to cobble together a stable majority in the assembly, currently made up of eight party blocs and two dozen independents — many of them deeply antagonistic.

A debate on women's rights earlier this month descended into physical violence between Islamist Al-Karama coalition lawmakers and social democrats from the Democratic bloc.

Mechichi, Tunisia's ninth head of government since 2011, heads a fragile administration.

Saied said in January that he wanted to apologize in the name of the state for human rights abuses committed under dictatorships since Tunisia's independence from France in 1956.

But even the president "is disappointing a large part of the electorate," said Meddeb. 

"Why would he go to Sidi Bouzid? To make yet another speech for the revolution?"

A decade since the uprising, "people don't have the patience any more to listen to speeches or announcements or declarations," Meddeb added.

"They want concrete actions, now."

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