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Tunisia: At 10th anniversary of Sidi Bouzid uprising, protests erupted and no celebrations

Protesters in support for Mohamed Bouazizi on 15th January 2011 [Antoine Walter/Flickr]
Protesters in support for Mohamed Bouazizi on 15th January 2011 [Antoine Walter/Flickr]

The governorate of Sidi Bouzid in central Tunisia celebrated the tenth anniversary of the outbreak of the popular protests on 17 December, amid a dim atmosphere. The commemorated protests toppled the regime of President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and set the country on a democratic transition path.

On 17 December, 2010, the young man Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself after a fierce dispute with the police over his merchandise and the cart that he used to sell vegetables and make a living in his marginalised governorate in central Tunisia.

Social protests and clashes with the police led to the deaths of about 300 people and with Ben Ali fleeing the country. Meanwhile, the demonstrations stretched to neighbouring countries and ended with toppling many Arab regimes, one by one.

However, the celebration scenes that prevailed during the first years of post-revolution Tunisia came to an end due to the unsatisfactory living conditions and social situation, especially within the interior regions.

The large banner of Bouazizi's photo in the city centre of Sidi Bouzid has lost its shine over the years, as well as the statue of his cart.

Employment is a right

Hundreds of people demonstrated on Thursday in the city centre by the cart statue. They chanted: "Employment is a right, you gang of thieves," one of the most important slogans demanding jobs in the 2011 revolution.

The scarcity of jobs prompted many young people to illegally migrate by sea to European coasts. Some adventures ended tragically in the Mediterranean.

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On the main streets in the centre of Sidi Bouzid the walls of buildings are adorned with signs that read: "We paved the path to freedom for you, but you chose to take turns," "Violence is the weapon of cowards," "Slogans must be concretised," and on the cart statue they wrote "Menich Msemah" (I will not forgive).

The historic day to celebrate the anniversary of the revolution turned into an occasion for the region's residents to express the anger. Lawyer Farouk Al-Jaziri stated: "The same scene of anger is renewed every year. The people's situation is getting worse after ten years."

The memory of the revolution in the governorate has gone from an occasion to commemorate the date of toppling the dictatorial regime, to a day to protest against the existing political system. The political system failed to find solutions to the economic hardship in the governorate, which usually welcomes ministers and officials with stones and the expression, "Get out of here."

Meanwhile, life in the rest of the city's neighbourhoods goes on amid total indifference to what is happening.

No official visits were announced by senior state officials to the governorate on Thursday. The Tunisian presidency announced that President Kais Saied, who made the slogan of the revolution "The people want" a major motto for his electoral campaign, will not visit Sidi Bouzid on Thursday due to "urgent commitments", according to a statement on Wednesday.

One of the protesters expressed indifference to Saied's visit and asked: "What good will it bring to us?"

Saied, a professor of constitutional law, was elected president in 2019 with the majority of votes, especially among youth, after he advocated for the principles of the revolution.

Saied stressed in previous statements that he is ready to offer a state apology "without delay" to the victims of human rights violations during the dictatorship era, as an essential step in the path of reconciliation and transitional justice.

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Political science researcher Hamzah Meddeb explained: "The atmosphere is not appropriate for celebrating. Neither the rulers nor the people are heading towards an atmosphere of celebration because there are indicators that the country is in an adverse condition."

'Failure'

Meddeb believes that: "Certainly the country achieved democracy with difficulty, and certainly there is also progress in the file of political freedoms, but after ten years of the revolution there is a record of failure also."

The country's political class has been divided since the 2019 elections, while the socio-economic situation is becoming more difficult with the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The unemployment rate has reached more than 15 per cent and particularly includes young people in the marginalised interior regions, while the purchasing power has diminished due to inflation. At the same time, political tensions are preventing the implementation of major economic reforms and fighting corruption.

"The indicators have gone red and Tunisians are in a state of anger, this is not the appropriate time for officials to make field visits," Meddeb remarked.

Some people from the governorate of Jendouba received Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi shouting "get out of here" during a visit he made two weeks ago to the area, after a doctor died in a broken elevator in the regional hospital.

The increasing social anger over the past weeks was reflected in the closures of roads and the staging of sit-ins, halting production operations in some regions, while demanding jobs, development and improvement of government services.

The political class in the country is accused of wasting time on issues that are often motivated by narrow partisan interests. Recently, the parliament has become the scene of sharp disputes that sometimes reach the point of fistfights.

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The Ennahdha party, which won the majority of seats in parliament (54 out of 217), is facing difficulties maintaining a comfortable majority vis à vis the dispersed parliamentary blocs, which entail that Mechichi's government will remain weak and lacking strong political support.

Meddeb confirmed that: "The political class has failed and faces an unprecedented wave of criticism." He noted that even President Saied, who was elected "with great hope" is already disappointing a large segment of his electoral base. "Why would he go to Sidi Bouzid?" Meddeb questions.

He indicates: "Ten years after the revolution, people no longer have the patience to hear speeches. They want real achievements and right now."

Observers confirmed that the country witnessed the spread of extremist ideology and armed jihadist organisations were formed after the revolution. This led to destabilising public security with attacks targeting tourists, security personnel and soldiers. Thus, political assassinations also rocked the country, prompting the authorities to impose a state of emergency that is still in effect to date.

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