In birthplace of Arab uprising, discontent lingers

AP News
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Posted: Mar 12, 2011 5:43 AM
In birthplace of Arab uprising, discontent lingers

From this sleepy town in Tunisia, revolution swept across the Arab world. But while one man's act of defiance and despair has transformed the Middle East, it has changed little in his hometown.

Residents of Sidi Bouzid can now express their anger more freely. But they're still clamoring for jobs and rail against the official chicanery that drove a local fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, to set himself on fire on Dec. 17.

The desperate act by the high-school dropout set off mass protests that brought down President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in less than a month. The revolt inspired others who toppled autocratic Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, launched an armed rebellion against Libyan despot Moammar Gadhafi, and rattled governments in Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere.

The protests have common roots: anger against official corruption and political oppression, a "youth bulge" that means economies can't grow fast enough to provide jobs for all, and growing expectations of a better life as a result of improved education and widespread Internet and satellite TV access.

In Sidi Bouzid, a town of about 70,000 people and the provincial capital of a district of about 410,000 people in the Tunisia's central plain, disillusionment has largely replaced the euphoria of the uprising.

Unemployed young men spend their days playing cards in coffee shops, dreaming of sneaking into Europe. Since the overthrow of Ben Ali, thousands of Tunisians have attempted the dangerous trip across the choppy Mediterranean in old fishing boats.

Other job seekers throng the local governor's office, just yards from where the 26-year-old Bouazizi turned himself into a human torch, to try to press crumpled CVs and college diplomas into the hands of officials across coils of barbed wire. Officials say they had to barricade the compound because they fear angry crowds might try to break in.

But for those waiting outside the gates _ some come every day and try for hours to get someone's attention _ the barriers signal that those in charge now are as inaccessible as their predecessors.

"I don't understand why the governor can't open the door," said jobseeker Kamal Hamdi, 38, who holds a degree in economics, but has been forced to work as a waiter for the past 11 years because there are no jobs in his field.

"Since the revolution, nothing has changed," said Hamdi, a father of three. "We threw out Ben Ali, that's all."

Unemployment is perhaps most demoralizing for the young men who spearheaded the street protests after Bouazizi's self-immolation and now find themselves back in the coffee shops, smoking and talking about ways to get to Europe.

One of them is Ali Chouaibi, 22, who earns a little spending money with odd jobs, such as fixing antennas. "We think that work is dignity. We are people without dignity," said Chouaibi. "I want to live a normal life ... to marry the woman I love, because without money, you can't marry."

Tunisia's interim government is appealing for patience, saying it needs time to put in place an ambitious economic development plan. Officials promise that remote places like Sidi Bouzid, which saw the earliest and some of the bloodiest protests, will be given priority as part of this plan.

However, with Tunisia still trying to find its way after the uprising, it appears unlikely the transition government will get much done. The interim Cabinet has already gone through several shake-ups, sporadic street protests in the capital continue, and elections are set for July for a body meant to rewrite the constitution and pave the way for a presidential vote. That leaves not much time to get started on massive job-creation programs.

Meanwhile, unemployment is almost certain to rise from the pre-revolt national average of 14 percent because the unrest devastated Tunisia's tourism industry.

Before Ben Ali's downfall, tourism employed about 400,000 people, or 10 percent of the working age population. Tourism revenues fell 40 percent from January into February, Tourism Minister Mehdi Houas said recently, adding that the situation might even be worse, with many businesses fearing collapse if tourists don't return soon.

In some respects, Tunisia seems better off than some of its neighbors. The youth bulge is not nearly as big as in some Arab countries, such as Yemen. Per capita income stands at around $9,500, or lower middle in a worldwide comparison. And Ben Ali's government spent huge sums on education, creating a growing crop of university graduates.

However, in rural districts like Sidi Bouzid, where jobs for academics are scarce, that has created even more discontent. At least 6,000 university graduates in the province are unemployed, local officials say.

Among those waiting outside the governor's office on Wednesday was Ida Hamidi, 27, who is seeking jobs for five college-educated siblings, with degrees in sports, biology, computer science, finance and French, respectively. Hamidi said she has made the 60-kilometer (40-mile) trip from her village repeatedly in recent days, walking for several miles to catch a bus to the provincial capital. She said she has so far had no luck delivering her siblings' CVs, let alone speak to an official inside. Barely holding back tears of frustration, she said life hasn't changed since the uprising.

The post-revolt government has replaced top officials, including regional governors, and insists it's now following an open-door policy.

Sidi Bouzid's new deputy governor, Ali Rahal, said that all those seeking jobs will get a hearing, but was evasive when asked about specific job-creation plans.

Rahal, who until recently taught philosophy in a nearby town, acknowledged the enormous challenge. "The number (of unemployed) is very big," said the 36-year-old who spent the morning listening to demands from businessmen and area politicians crowding into his office. "This will not be solved overnight."

Despite disillusionment in Sidi Bouzid, there's also pride in having made history as the catalyst of a regionwide protest movement.

Bouazizi, the fruit vendor, was an unlikely hero. For the past seven years, he had been the family's main breadwinner, selling fruit from his pushcart.

On Dec. 17, municipal inspectors confiscated his scales and his wares, on grounds that he did not have a vending permit, said his mother, Manoubiyeh. She said one of the inspectors also slapped him in public.

Incensed by the humiliation, Bouazizi asked to complain to the governor, but was ignored, his mother said. He then doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire outside the governor's office. He suffered severe burns and died Jan. 4. "I hope that God will finally have mercy on him, because Mohamed died because there was no justice," she said.

Despite her grief, Bouazizi said she is proud of her son. "He was the reason of the revolution that started from Sidi Bouzid and reached Egypt and Libya," she said.

The young vendor is buried in a small cemetery nestled among olive trees and cactus fruit, near his home village of Grab Ben Noor, a few miles from Sidi Bouzid. A red Tunisian flag marks the grave of whitewashed stone.

In the center of Sidi Bouzid, Bouazizi's photograph has been attached to a gold-colored sculpture of a dove, as a makeshift memorial until a proper one is build. The white wall behind the sculpture is covered with red graffiti in English, French and Arabic. "Stand up for your rights," reads one of the slogans.

Other attempts are being made to immortalize the young vendor.

A Tunisian filmmaker, Mohamed Zran, said he plans to make a movie about Bouazizi's life and visited the family home this week for research. Zran said freedom was hard-won and needs to be protected, but that the international community must also help Tunisia during the difficult transition.

He said the country's potential is boundless because of the energies set free by the uprising. "I am not afraid of the future," he said.

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Bouazza Ben Bouazza contributed to this report.