In Sidi Bouzid, cradle of revolution, 10 yrs of dashed hopes

In city in centre of Tunisia, 'still no work'

15 December, 19:03

    Protests in Sidi Bouzid after the peddler Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on 17 December 2010 Protests in Sidi Bouzid after the peddler Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on 17 December 2010

    (ANSAmed) - SIDI BOUZID, DECEMBER 15 - In the cradle of the Tunisian Revolution, the young businesswoman Khouloud Rhimi can now calmly speak about politics at a coffee shop with her friends.

    But, just like in the times of the 2011 revolt, she complains that "there's no work".

    Still, this marginalised city in the centre of Tunisia, first reduced to a network of deteriorated roads with worn-out shops and dilapidated public buildings, which then became a symbol of the revolution, was able to benefit from special attention on the part of centralised power: it now has a public pool, places to hang out, and coffee shops with wifi where young men and women can meet and criticise the authorities without fear.

    But if the revolution brought unprecedented freedom, it was unable to respond to other requests by young people who protested in 2011 to remove Zine el Abidine Ben Ali from power: work and dignity.

    In the cities in the country's interior, unemployment remains two to three times higher than the 18% national level, in particular among young college graduates.

    It is the same plague of unemployment and police harassment that pushed the peddler Mohamed Bouazizi to set himself on fire on 17 December 2010, in the main square of Sidi Bouzid.

    His extreme gesture inflamed the protests in the country, forcing Ben Ali' to flee on 14 January 2011.

    Ten years have passed since then, and if Tunisia is greeted as the only country in the area to have followed through on democratisation, many residents of Sidi Bouzid feel that their life now is even harder.

    "Many acquaintances have tried to go to Europe," said Khouloud Rhimi, 25.

    "Some died at sea. Others set themselves on fire. There's no work, sometimes there isn't even enough money to buy food," she said.

    This young woman, with a degree in computer sciences in 2015 didn't wait for state aid.

    But in an area in which some jobs are paid even 150 dinars (50 euros) per months, it took four years to save enough to start her own business: a small restaurant.

    Banks and microcredit organisations refused small loans.

    It is a sign that the region hasn't seen the improvements promised on several occasions, and the industrial areas of Sidi Bouzid were left nearly deserted.

    In addition to the banks' reluctance, Rachid Fetini, who runs a local textiles company, denounced the lack of a governmental strategy to fight inequality and clientelism.

    Fetini, who before 2011 employed 500 workers, complains about the rows of silent sewing machines in his empty factory.

    The coronavirus pandemic, which brought the Tunisian economy to its knees, marked the fate of his business.

    "After the revolution, all my clients left Sidi Bouzid," said Fetini, who supported the revolution.

    "They were afraid," he said, criticising the media coverage of this region, which was presented as if it were continually in protest, "which wasn't true at all".

    "There's a fratricidal fight between political parties, and even local officials are blocked in their decisions," he said.

    Many projects were hindered "because some lobbies don't want this or that business to be developed" out of fear of competition, he said.

    This situation is perfectly illustrated by the Somaproc story.

    Situated at the exit of Sidi Bouzid, at a strategic crossroads, it was supposed to help local farmers by hosting a wholesale vegetable and livestock market, a slaughterhouse and a research centre.

    But as of today, it is still a desolate area.

    This project, which would have employed 1,200 people and improved the lives of 130,000 others, obtained millions of euros in foreign aid and was supported by President Kais Saied, but in vain.

    Its director Lofti Hamdi said a series of legal and administrative hurdles made it unsuccessful, and he described the complex tangle of eight government agencies involved in the project, and the multitude of intermediaries continues to reign over the project.

    Are there still reasons to hope that things will improve ten years after Bouazizi's tragic gesture? Although the big social expectations weren't reached, the revolution still brought changes, in particular by giving a bit more political weight to young people.

    The introduction of a mandatory quota of candidates under age 36 allowed them to enter in greater numbers in local governments.

    "Today we can join the various political parties, associations, unions," said Hayet Amami, regional director of the association of unemployed graduates.

    Volunteering in an association against violence against women, Feyda Khaskhoussi, an accounting graduate, said she gained "new skills to start projects".

    "I have something new to give people, I don't see myself as unemployed, even if what I do is unpaid".

    But Khouloud Rhimi isn't changing her mind.

    "As far as I'm concerned, the revolution didn't bring anything".

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