Ballot boxes betray revolution in Sidi Bouzid, cradle of the Arab Spring

Karem Yehia in Tunisia, Saturday 29 Oct 2011

With vote wins overturned and protests breaking out, Tunisia's elections are coming into question, with many wondering if the revolution was sold out

Protest in Tunisia Sidi Abu Zaid (Ahram Online)

Sidi Bouzid is the epicenter of the Tunisian revolution, where a vegetable seller — Mohamed Bouazizi — set himself ablaze in a protest that sparked nationwide demonstrations and eventually led to uprisings across the Arab world.

The radio during the taxi ride to Sidi Bouzid, 270 kilometres south of the capital Tunis, was broadcasting the latest updates on election results for Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly. The passengers not only chatted about delays in announcing preliminary results and the victory of Al-Nahda in an unexpected number of seats (90 out of 219), but more important for fellow travelers from southern rural areas is the fact that the ‘Popular Petition Party list’ was headed by businessman Hashemi Al-Hamedi.

Hamedi, owner of Al-Mustaqila satellite television channel based in London, had broadcast promises to give Tunisians free healthcare, new factories and thousands of jobs.

For an Egyptian visitor, there is a surprising twist to the tale of Sidi Bouzid and the elections there. Historian Al-Amin Bouazizi did not hide his contempt for the outcome of the ballot as we pass Dar Al-Wilaya Square in the capital of the governorate Sidi Bouzid, where the revolutionaries met bullets with bare chests as they fanned the flames of revolution since 17 December 2010. They did so by themselves for 11 days before the protests spread to neighbouring governorates, along with a general strike in Sfax, the economic and industrial capital of the country, on 12 January followed by demonstrations in the capital Tunis two days later, eventually toppling dictator Zein El-Abidine Ben Ali.

Historian Bouazizi, along with union and opposition activists who challenged Ben Ali’s regime and incited a historic rebellion in Sidi Bouzid, is angered because “elections were held on the basis of reform not revolution. They were won by those who were all but absent from events.” Areedha Chaabiya or Popular Petition Party list won three out of eight seats in the governorate and Al-Nahda’s list won two seats.

The greater anomaly in the list sponsored by businessman Hamedi, a man who lives far away in London and whose Al-Mustaqila satellite channel was used by a religious preacher to manipulate calm their scorn for Ben Ali’s regime. According to reliable publications in Tunis, Hamedi was known for his praise on air of the integrity of Layla Al-Tarablusi, the deposed president’s wife, and her Islamic upbringing of her children. He is a defector from Al-Nahda movement and built strong ties with Arab Gulf countries, which observers believe is the reason that he was able to afford a very expensive election campaign.

Yet, electoral officials invalidated six of the popular party's seats, pushing the party back to fourth in the voting process. To complicate matters further, Hamedi decided to withdraw from the 19 seats his party won after the electoral commission's decision. Meanwhile, protests swept the country and pushed authorities there to impose a curfew to ensure stability.

A few metres away from Samarkand Café, once the headquarters of the revolution on the only main street in Sidi BuZeid, is the local headquarters of the Supreme Independent Committee for Overseeing the Elections, plastered with flyers encouraging voters to take part in the balloting process. Dr Badrabala Al-Noseiri, a physician and chairman of the oversight committee, is suprisingly outspoken.

“These are the first ever free elections in the country, and voter turnout was more than 60 per cent, but the results do not represent the revolution in anyway,” Al-Noseiri retorts.

“It seems that the revolutionaries and those who made sacrifices were not able to translate their slogans and goals into a programme that serves voters. Since people here remained for more 10 months after the revolution without any tangible changes in their living conditions, they voted this way. They put their trust in those who manipulated their suffering and aspirations, without even asking if they were honest and able to achieve these goals,” he added.

When I asked Al-Noseiri and others in the city whether Hamedi had sponsored any projects to benefit voters there, they all said no. I contacted Hamedi, but he refused to speak to Ahram Online.

The people of Sidi Abouzid, more than residents of other regions in Tunisia, were known for being members of the ruling party, and several sources there told me that Hamedi heavily relied on party cadres in his electoral campaign.

When I asked Saeeda Abed, in her 40s, why she went to vote for the first time in her life Sunday, she spontaneously responded: “Hamedi is a native of Sidi Bouzid.” I told her that other candidates were also natives, Abed was silent for a moment then she said that his campaign promises aired on Al-Mustaqela TV included building a hospital, creating jobs, giving seniors free public transportation passes, as well as reducing the price of bread.

Observers in Tunisia emphasise that the Constituent Assembly needs a different type of representative who does not aim to offer services to constituents, since the assembly is responsible for writing a new constitution.

Life in Sidi Bouzid has not changed at all since the revolution. The only hospital in town is still referred to as “the cemetery” and no one has seen or heard of any new projects to create jobs for the youth, according to locals, irrespective of whether they voted for Hamedi’s list or Al-Nahda’s or any other, or even boycotted the elections altogether, like the majority of activists from labour unions and the decimated Left, who all played a significant role in starting the revolution.

What did change in the cradle of the revolutions of the Arab Spring since the departure of Ben Ali on 14 January are the Islamic slogans plastered on the main buildings of the city. These are unlike the social, political and nationalistic banners during the revolution that had no religious connotations. Another development is that Mohamed Bouazizi’s family left the city and the governorate altogether for the capital after disputes with neighbours. The policewoman, Fadya Hamdi, who reportedly struck him across the face, has returned to her post in the same district after a court found her not guilty.

In Sidi Bouzid, one is hard pressed not to feel that the revolution has been betrayed.

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