Tunis, Asharq Al-Awsat—Almost three years after the revolution, Tunisia celebrates January 14—the day Ben Ali was toppled—as its national day.
But the residents of Sidi Bouzid insist that December 17 should be Tunisia’s day of celebration. On December 17, 2010, vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze in front of the municipality building of Sidi Bouzid in protest against the confiscation of his vegetable cart by the city’s municipal authorities.
Sidi Bouzid may be Tunisia’s best-known city. That is not surprising, given that it was the birthplace of Tunisia’s popular uprising that toppled the country’s long-standing dictator, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, resonating across the globe and inspiring other Arab countries to follow its path.
Asharq Al-Awsat visited the city that saw the birth of the so-called Arab Spring and interviewed its residents to learn how what happened affected their day-to-day lives and whether they felt any goals of the revolution had been achieved.
Waiting for Development
Bouazizi’s self-immolation triggered angry protests in the villages and towns of Sidi Bouzid. They soon engulfed the entire country, and on January 14, 2011, Ben Ali fled and his regime was declared illegitimate.
Three years after the revolution—which erupted in protest against woeful living standards, soaring unemployment and restrictions imposed on public freedoms—the people of Sidi Bouzid do not hesitate when they say that the situation is worse now than it was before.
The most prominent manifestation of their anger over the lack of development projects in their city came on December 17, 2012, when the people of Sidi Bouzid attacked the president, Moncef Marzouki, and the head of the Tunisian Constituent Assembly, Mustapha Ben Jafar. The two politicians had come to the city to celebrate the second anniversary of the revolution, but instead they were greeted by anti-government slogans.
The incident was a clear expression of the people’s frustration over the neglect of their city and the government’s failure to make good on their promises.
Jamal, a Tunisian journalist from Sidi Bouzid who spoke with Asharq Al-Awsat, said that the city has not “seen any new developmental projects since 2011, and even the ones [previously] scheduled have been blocked, such as phosphate extraction project in Meknassy.”
“Our difficulties have been exacerbated by the hard economic circumstances the country is going through,” said the journalist, who did not want to give his surname. He added that unemployment rates continued to rise.
According to Jamal, there are around 7,000 young people with a university degree who are unemployed in Sidi Bouzid alone.
Saleh, who works at a private company in Sidi Bouzid, told us that “economic activity has retreated in the city. Business owners are experiencing a decline in the number of transactions due to the economic crisis the country is facing, as well as the decline in the purchasing power of the people of Sidi Bouzid.”
“The lack of rain and the increase in fertilizers and petrol prices significantly impacted the profitability of the agricultural sector,” he said, adding, “Many of the residents of Sidi Bouzid share the conviction that the revolution, whose spark was triggered in their city, has not achieved anything for them.”
Saleh and Jamal, like many of the people of Sidi Bouzid, believe that the government should place their city—and other similar cities in Tunisia—on the top of its priority list when deciding where to set up new development projects.
Both men insist that if their city and other cities like it do not get special attention, the government will not be able to address the issues that gave rise to the revolution in the first place: the difficult living conditions and economic distress that burdened this city, and others like it, during Ben Ali’s nearly quarter of a century in power.