In Tunisian Town of Arab Spring Martyr, Disillusionment Seeps In
By Kareem Fahim
The New York Times
August 5, 2011
SIDI BOUZID, Tunisia — It is hard to say for sure who took down the portrait of the revolution’s most famous martyr, Mohamed Bouazizi, from its perch atop a garish gold statue on the street where he set himself on fire, touching off a season of revolt across the Arab world. One man said unnamed counterrevolutionaries did it, and another man said it was damaged by rain.
Mr. Bouazizi’s neighbors say it was taken down in disgust, several weeks ago, after his mother, uncle and siblings left Sidi Bouzid, an act the neighbors considered a betrayal. Their anger stemmed from rumors that the family had accepted large sums of money to move to a fancy villa in Tunis. But more than that, they said they were furious at being left behind, in a place with no jobs, money or hope, without the famous Bouazizis to give voice to their despair.
“She abandoned us, and nothing here changed,” said Seif Amri, 18, a neighbor, speaking of Mr. Bouazizi’s mother, Mannoubia Bouazizi.
It is a measure of the deep frustration in Sidi Bouzid that a few people have lashed out at the town’s favorite son. That anger is misplaced, most residents say, blaming the lack of progress here on the transitional government, which has moved slowly to address one of the revolution’s central complaints — youth unemployment — especially here in the towns of central Tunisia, where the uprising began.
The bitterness here stands in stark contrast to a guarded optimism elsewhere in Tunisia about the progress of the revolution, and it threatens to undermine the gains: Several times in the last few months, disputes over jobs have led to deadly episodes of violence.
Analysts say the government’s response has been inadequate, consisting mainly of a cash handout scheme. They also say some ministers have resisted pushing for large-scale government projects that would create short-term jobs, waiting instead for the market to correct the problems.
“There hasn’t been enough provided or offered,” said Mongi Boughzala, an economics professor at the University of Tunis. “The few programs that came were late or insufficient. Young people expected something immediately. They expected that after taking this revolutionary step, there would be some return, in terms of jobs but also recognition.”
“A young person who says ‘I want a job, I am fed up with being marginalized, and this is not something I can bear anymore,’ does not care whether it’s the fault of the government or the market,” he added.
In Tunisia, as in Egypt, the optimism fueled by a popular uprising has crashed into the cold reality that life has not quickly improved, and in many cases has even grown more challenging as economies stall and interim leaders struggle to build a new system.
Youth unemployment was high in Tunisia even before the revolution — as high as 30 percent, and more than 40 percent in towns like Sidi Bouzid, economists say. But Tunisia’s economy was badly hit in the months after the uprising and is expected to eke out only modestly positive growth this year. A crippled tourism industry and the burdens of coping with refugees from the war in neighboring Libya have worsened the country’s financial picture and its employment problems.
In recent weeks, Tunisia’s interim prime minister, Beji Caid Essebsi, has spoken several times about the country’s 700,000 unemployed people, more than 15 percent of the work force, including 170,000 university graduates. Mr. Essebsi has said that new government programs can provide positions for 60,000 people, but he also acknowledged that there was no quick fix, appealing instead to businessmen and investors to focus on Tunisia’s depressed inland areas.
Young people in the region say the government has responded with empty pledges of help and deaf ears. Nabil Hajbi, a local business owner who runs a youth association called Karama, said eight ministers visited Sidi Bouzid about two months ago and ignored a plan presented by area leaders that contained possible solutions to the unemployment problem, including ideas for fixing the region’s infrastructure and for new factories.
“They promised a lot,” Mr. Hajbi said. “That’s why people have lost hope. The government didn’t do anything in this area. They want people to calm down first.”
He added, “The people want the government to act first, or at least to have a plan.”
In other places, specific promises have raised expectations and then led to recriminations — or civil disobedience. Less than 60 miles away, in Kassrine, unemployed teachers have been staging a sit-in for almost two months, demanding that the Education Ministry follow through on an April pledge to hire 3,000 teachers within weeks. To date, the teachers said, 190 teachers have been hired.
They occupied the ground floor of a labor union building — they had wanted to take over the local employment office, but it was burned down during the uprising. The teachers’ complaints were not new: in a corner of their room, Zuhayar Arhimi, 38, was on the fourth day of a hunger strike. As he collapsed in the heat, his colleagues said that he had been unemployed since he graduated from college in 2003.
Kassrine and the nearby town of Tala suffered heavy losses during the January uprising, when more than 20 local residents were killed. The largest employer is a paper factory, and the people, like those elsewhere in the region, find seasonal work in agriculture, making about $5 a day. Graffiti on the road out of Kassrine reads, “Cowards don’t make history.”
Samir Rhimi sat on the train tracks on the outskirts of town, watching two men scavenging for plastic and for food for their animals, in a filthy ditch. “If there is no development in this region,” Mr. Rhimi said, “there will be no stability in the country.”
More than two weeks ago, the authorities imposed a curfew in Sidi Bouzid, after violent clashes between the army and protesters left a 14-year-old boy dead. The protests were not directly about unemployment. People gathered in a show of solidarity with demonstrators who had clashed with the police in Tunis a few days before, but in Sidi Bouzid’s current climate, the protest quickly escalated as youths threw improvised firebombs at soldiers, who fired their weapons.
Afterward, there were familiar complaints of neglect. “Nobody came to explain what had happened,” said Bilghassim Hajlaoui, whose son Thabit was killed. “The governor said sorry for the loss of your son.”
The Bouazizi family did not move to a fancy villa, though their one-story home, tucked in an alleyway in the Tunis neighborhood of La Marsa, is bigger than their cramped house in Sidi Bouzid. The front yard has a pumpkin patch and a lemon tree, and the six children still share rooms. The family pays $200 a month in rent to the landlord, who lives upstairs.
Their journey, from a poor inland town to the more prosperous coast, is repeated by thousands of people every year. “It’s much better than Sidi Bouzid,” said Samia Bouazizi, 20, Mohamed’s sister. “We were tired,” she said.
She said that claims that the family had received money were “lies.” So was the contention that the Bouazizis had forgotten their roots. “We speak up for the town every chance we get,” she said. She had no explanation for the wild rumors that had followed her family, except one.
“Envy,” she said.