There are two roads from Tunis to Sidi Bouzid, the cradle of the Arab Spring revolutions, just as there were before Tunisia’s 2011 Revolution. One is the 270 km Jalma Road, the other the 250 km Nasrallah Road. The latter has undergone repairs and repaving, but neither has been widened, let alone divided to create a dual carriageway. Travellers to or from the town in the central part of the country often spot wrecked vehicles on the sides of the roads, victims of reckless speeds and the narrowness of the lanes.
People who have been to Sidi Bouzid before (population 60,000) will notice two changes when they return there today. The first is the increase in the number of coffeehouses on the main street, which no longer has a name. The revolution erased its previous name of 7 November Street, as this commemorated ousted former president Zein Al-Abidine Ben Ali’s coup d’état against the father of the Tunisian Republic, Habib Bourguiba. According to the town’s inhabitants, the proliferation of coffeehouses has been due to the proliferation of unemployment among young people.
The second change is the growing height of the residential buildings. These have now climbed to five or more storeys high, whereas it was once rare to find a home more than two storeys high. There are also quite a few apartment blocks under construction. The construction boom is thought to be connected to the rise of a class of nouveaux riches whose newfound wealth is derived from selling gas smuggled in from Algeria and Libya on the black market.
In some cases, the money is thought to be generated from drug trafficking, which also appears to have proliferated. Khaled Oweiniya, a prominent lawyer in the Sidi Bouzid governorate (population 450,000), said that the area had never seen so many narcotics consumption cases as it does today.
On the main street in Sidi Bouzid visitors’ attention may be caught by a memorial statue of the rickety cart of Mohamed Bouazizi who sparked the 2010 Revolution. Behind this, a large mural on the wall of a government building depicts the young fruit and vegetable vendor who immolated himself in protest against unemployment and the insulting treatment he had received at the hands of a municipal police officer. In the now faded mural, Bouazizi is clapping his hands before invisible spectators.
There is also a coffeehouse in which the first revolutionary organisation was founded on 19 December 2010. The Committee for Citizenship and the Defence of the Causes of the Marginalised, as it was called, was made up of activists, Arab nationalists, Marxists, Nasserists and some independents, but no Islamists.
Visitors to the coffeeshop today can quickly grasp the frustration and dismay felt by the intellectuals who spearheaded the revolution. A coup had been committed against the 17 December Revolution, primary school teacher Mahjoub Al-Nasiri said. It had been taken over by the “Ennahdawis” (referring to members of the Islamist Ennahda Party lead by Rachid al-Ghannoushi) and the “Rallyists” (referring to members of the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), the pre-revolutionary ruling party that was dissolved in 2011).
Mohamed Al-Daamouni, a secondary school teacher, fumed about the “fake revolutionaries” who had appeared after the revolution and whose reputations had been made by the television screen.
Mohamed Al-Jalali, a lawyer and former judge, explained why opponents of the Ben Ali dictatorship and leaders of the 17 December uprising had sat out the elections of 2011 and 2014. “They couldn’t translate their activist history into a political and electoral presence,” he said. “They are rebels by nature, and they find it hard to engage in organised long-term work.” Al-Jalali, also a public poet, said that he had been asked to stand in the elections by a number of political parties but had refused. “I’m an independent, and elections require a lot of resources and involve deceiving people,” he said.
Abdel-Salam Al-Haidouri was an exception in the group and had run in the recent legislative elections. He was on the leftist Popular Front list headed by Mbarka Brahmi, widow of the assassinated opposition leader Mohamed Brahmi, a native of Sidi Bouzid, who was the only candidate on the list to make it into the new parliament.
Of the other seven seats allocated to the Sidi Bouzid governorate, Nidaa Tounes (the Call of Tunisia) Party, which received the highest number of votes, had won two and Ennahda, which placed second, winning almost as many votes in the governorate as it had in the 2011 Constituent Assembly elections, had also won two seats. The other three seats had fallen to lists described by those in the coffeehouse as “having no colour, flavour or odour”.
One of these was the list headed by the business magnate, independent television station owner and Sidi Bouzid native Al-Hashimi Al-Hamdi, this previously having three seats in the Constituent Assembly.
Al-Haidouri said that the reason Nidaa Tounes had swept the elections was that it had inherited the campaign machine of the old RCD. “The RCD has made a comeback through the Nidaa Tounis lists and with the same old faces,” he said. “There was a time when those characters couldn’t even sit in coffeehouses and look at people in the eyes.” Ennahda had established cells in the governorate and possessed a professional campaign machine, he said.
Statistics published by the Supreme Electoral Commission in the capital indicate that the governorate of Sidi Bouzid registered the lowest voter turnout figures in the legislative elections of 59 per cent, ten points below the national average at the governorate level of 69 per cent.
Officials at the governorate headquarters of the commission, situated in a building that had once belonged to the ruling RCD, said that the number of registered voters in the governorate had dropped by around 20,000 since the 2011 elections. Around 135,000 people from the governorate had voted in these elections, while only 118,000 had voted in this year’s polls, they said.
The director of the office, Abu Jomaa Al-Mashi, an academic, attributed the decline to both lack-lustre campaigning and to “the general frustration and disappointment among inhabitants of the governorate because their standard of living has not improved.” He noted that a large number of young people, perhaps two-thirds of the youth of the governorate, had not voted in the polls. Three key issues had dominated the campaign, he said: security, employment and purchasing power.
No major development projects had taken place in Sidi Bouzid since the revolution, though a pasteurisation plant has been added to the 14 existing factories in the town that together employ around 300 people. The new factory, owned by a private entrepreneur, employs 284 workers, and the economy remains almost entirely agricultural and based around small farms.
The years since the revolution have not brought a single government project to improve public services and infrastructure. Sidi Bouzid does not have a single cinema or theatre troupe. There are no recreation spaces for the middle class. Even the local football team remains mediocre and unable to make it to national playoffs.
However, for the people of Sidi Bouzid the wound that still festers the most is the regional hospital, more commonly referred to as the “hospital of death,” which they say sorely lacks facilities. “We’re in the 21st century, yet a person here can still die from a scorpion bite because the hospital doesn’t have the antidotes,” people say, adding that the contrast between such rural hospitals and those in the coastal cities has become flagrant.
With the high unemployment, the poor or nonexistent services, and the general sense of neglect, Sidi Bouzid is not basking in contentment. Its youth have chased out the appointed governors three times since the revolution. President Moncef Al-Marzouki, Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh, and speaker of the
Constituent Assembly Mustafa Ben Jaafar have not visited the cradle of the Tunisian Revolution since December last year, having previously been pelted with stones.
The most violent confrontations have been between angry protesters demanding the right to work and the police during the rule of the so-called troika government headed by Ennahda. Oweinaya, a lawyer who also serves as president of the 17 December Association for Human Rights, said that the police practices inherited from the Ben Ali era had also not ceased.
“People here are still subjected to torture when arrested, regardless of whether the cause of their detention is for political reasons or criminal offences. The only thing that has changed is that the police have become cleverer at concealing the signs of torture. They keep their victims detained until the scars and bruises heal,” he said.
The national media seems uninterested in Sidi Bouzid unless its name crops up in connection with the jihadist Salafis that have been making the international headlines. This has occurred a number of times during the past three years, when this governorate has made national headlines because of Salafi leaders who have announced their responsibility for acts of terrorism.
Jihadi Salafis had taken control of mosques in the governorate, sources said, before the government headed by Prime Minister Mahdi Jomaa placed these mosques under the authority of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Some young men from Sidi Bouzid have also gone to Syria and Libya to wage jihad beneath the banners of terrorist organisations such as ISIS, and Oweinaya said that many ISIS and Al-Nusrah Front field commanders were now from Sidi Bouzid.
He said that many poor families in the governorate were now dependent for their livelihoods on money sent by their sons who had gone off to engage in jihad. “The troika headed by Ennahda is responsible for this, because it did not take early action against the rise of jihadist Salafis here,” he said.
Amal Hamdoun, a woman in her forties and the mother of two children, said that a large number of women in the governorate had voted for Nidaa Tounes in the parliamentary elections not because they supported the party’s platform but simply because they were afraid of terrorism and were fed up with the Salafis. “They harass women and mock and curse them in the streets. We are even afraid to go to wedding celebrations at night,” she said.
Hamdoun felt that life had changed little for people in Sidi Bouzid since the revolution. “Prices have risen. Before the revolution a kilogram of lamb cost 16 dinars, now it costs 22. Life for women has changed very little. The leaderships of the political parties are all dominated by men. But we have freedom of speech now, and that’s good,” she said.
Her husband Mohamed Al-Jalali added that “people here want change immediately. They’re impatient. They want the fruits of the revolution now. That’s not possible. After so many years of oppression, dictatorship and corruption it will take years to rebuild the institutions of the state on democratic foundations.”
On the way back to the capital, the taxi driver turned on the radio and tuned in to Sidi Bouzid’s non-governmental radio station. This is called “Karama,” or dignity.
* This article was first published in Ahram Weekly