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Tunisia's Sidi Bouzid: Five years after revolution, people still suffering

Karem Yehia in Tunisia, Monday 21 Dec 2015
Tunisia
Tunisian gather in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, Thursday, Dec.17, 2015 (AP)
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With the celebration of the fifth anniversary of the start of the Tunisian revolution, the situation in Sidi Bouzid, hometown to the revolution and the Arab Spring, appears to be deteriorating.

Tunisian Nobel laureates joined Thursday townspeople in the country's beleaguered heartland where street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in 2011 and sparked the Tunisian revolution that overthrew president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, AP reported.

Mourad Mahjoubi, governor of Sidi Bouzid, which is home to 60,000 Tunisians, said that three troika leaders – the heads of state, parliament and cabinet – were not coming to the celebrations, unlike the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, which was awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize two weeks ago.

The National Dialogue Quartet is made up of four Tunisian civil society groups; the UGTT, the Tunisian Employer's Union, the Tunisian Human Rights League and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers.

Troika leaders has stopped coming to Sidi Bouzid since 2012 when the frustrated residents threw stones at them. The Troika is an unofficial name for the alliance between the three parties (Ennahda, Ettakatol and CPR) that ruled in Tunisia after the 2011 Constituent Assembly election.

Worsening conditions

Sidi Bouzid's economy is worsening along with its infrastructure. 

There have been no local or foreign investments in the city after the revolution, the governor of Sidi Bouzid said.

"Not even one project," Mahjoubi emphasised. He attributed this to the city's weak infrastructure, especially highways to connect it to the capital Tunis, as well as the weakness of the road network within the state which connects the agricultural and livestock production sites in urban centres.

Additionally, Sidi Bouzid has not witnessed any development projects since the revolution in 2011. Even livestock, which Sidi Bouzid was known for, is deteriorating as there is only one factory, which cannot absorb all production.

Mubaraka Owainah, the elected MP for Sidi Bouzid, told Aharm Online that this leads to the production of excess diary, wasting resources.

Furthermore, Sidi Bouzid remains with no cinemas, theatres, performing groups or theme parks.

There are two obvious phenomena; an increase in coffee shops, which many consider a reflection of youth unemployment, and tall buildings that exceed five floors.

Even drug dealing has increased, Khaled Owainah, a Tunisian lawyer and Sidi Bouzid resident, told Ahram Online. He said that he noted a surge in drug abuse among young people in an unprecedented manner.

According to Mahjoubi, official figures indicate that there around 7,900 unemployed people in the city, putting its unemployment rate at 17.7 percent. This is higher than the unemployment rate in Tunisia as whole, which is 14 percent.

Meanwhile, the president of the Tunisian League for Human Rights branch in Sidi Bouzid, Bouderbala Al-Nasiri, estimates that the number is higher.

He says the unemployment rate in the governorate is about 21 percent, five percent more than the national average.

"The current deterioration of the economic and social rights does not in any way mean that the era of Ben Ali was the best," said Al-Nasiri.

Social rights

No change has taken place in terms of social rights as well, with Sidi Bouzid falling behind other governorates.

Al-Nasiri says that Sidi Bouzid is at the bottom in its level of development compared to other governorates. For example, there is only one doctor for every 2,400 residents. In 2010, there was one doctor for every 1,000 citizens. The national average is currently one doctor for every 600 people.

As for education, the results of high school exams demonstrate that only 1,300 students succeeded in 2015 compared to 3,300 in 2010.

Progress has been made, however, with regards to political and civil liberties compared to before the revolution, with difficulties preventing no one from enjoying a sense of freedom, especially freedom of expression.

The governorate has its own local radio station, Al-Karamah (dignity), and people speak freely in every place.

Nonetheless, the data from Tunisia's Independent High Electoral Commission in Tunis indicates that Sidi Bouzid had the lowest electoral participation rate among the states in both legislative and presidential elections in October and November 2014 respectively, according to Al-Nasiri.

The revolutionary figures that dominated the political scene since 17 December 2010 till the overthrow of Ben Ali in 14 January 2011 had noticeably refrained from participating in 2011 and 2014 elections.

"Ben Ali's opponents during his reign and leaders of the 17 December uprising refrained from participating in the elections as they could not translate their history of struggle into a political and electoral presence. They feel difficulty in engaging themselves in systematic and extensive work", former lawyer and judge Mohammad Jalali explained.

Salafist jihadism

Perhaps the phenomenon that attracted media attention to Sidi Bouzid is the spread of Salafi Jihadism.

Over the past years, the name Sidi Bouzid dominated news bulletins and newspaper headlines as it was linked to the names of Salafist leaders who claimed responsibility for acts of terrorism.

Numerous sources say that leaders of the Salafist militants seized control of many of the mosques in the state before the previous government headed by Mehdi Juma took them back to the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

Young people in Sidi Bouzid have also reportedly gone to Syria and Libya for "jihad" under the banner of cross-border terrorist organisations such as the ISIS group.

Owainah asserts that many of the field commanders of ISIS and Al-Nusra Front in Syria are from Sidi Bouzid.

Poor families in the governorate have come to rely on their income from sons who went for jihad.

"The government of the Troika, headed by the Renaissance, bears responsibility because it did not move early against the Salafist Jihadism," Owainah said.

But the governor, Mahjoubi, says that Sidi Bouzid is not an exception to the global phenomenon and the poor and marginalised internal areas in Tunisia.

"The number of terrorist groups in the governorate is limited and the number of terrorists inside a single group is no more than 20 members," he added.

At first, they benefited from the instability in the country and the weakness of state agencies. However, from the beginning of 2014, they were trapped on some of the mountains on the borders of the state.

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