Tunisians protest against corruption, economic crises a decade after the revolution

Ten years since the intoxicating early days of the Tunisian revolution, hopes for a better future have been shattered, and in the rural city where it began to celebrate few.

It was in Sidi Bouzid that Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit and vegetable seller who was outraged by police harassment, set himself on fire on December 17, 2010.

His actions sparked an unprecedented uprising that left about 300 dead but also overthrew the long-serving dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Ben Ali fled into exile on January 14, 2011 and sparked a series of uprisings across the Arab world.

But while Tunisia has been praised for its democratic transition, with freedom of expression and transparent elections, hope from the early years has disappeared amid widespread corruption and repeated economic crises.

So there was little sense of celebration, even as Tunisian flags lined the streets of Sidi Bouzid this week.

Instead of festivities, December 17 has become a date for protests against the post-Ben Ali regime, which still has to deliver two important promises about the revolution: jobs and dignity.

In Sidi Bouzid there were large posters on the walls: “We prepared the way for freedom, but you drifted away from it” and “slogans must be turned into action!”

“Neither the government nor the rulers are in the mood to celebrate, because the general feeling is that the country is feeling bad,” said analyst Hamza Meddeb.

“Sense of failure”

Meddeb noted that the Tunisians had won political freedoms.

But, he said, “ten years after the revolution, there is a real sense of failure.”

The political class, more fragmented than ever since last year’s parliamentary elections, is paralyzed by bitter strife.

This has prevented it from addressing urgent social and economic problems, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Tunisia suffers from national unemployment in excess of 15 percent and disproportionately beats young people in the far marginalized interior.

Wages have been devalued by inflation, while political instability has shattered hopes for fundamental reforms.

Tunisia has been one of the largest contingents of jihadists fighting in Syria’s civil war, while the economic situation has driven many others to make death-defying bids to reach Europe.

In Sidi Bouzid, a stage has been set up for a concert with local rap stars with the theme: “ten years, the wait has been long”.

“This event shows the importance of putting down the revolution, but it does not hide our anger and amazement at the current political class,” said Youssef Jilali, a spokesman for the organizers.

Meanwhile, no official visits to Sidi Bouzid have been announced – not even by President Kais Saied, elected in October 2019 on the slogan “the people want”, a reference to the revolution.

His office said on Wednesday night that he would not be there to celebrate the anniversary due to “urgent commitments”.

Meddeb said the Tunisians were “really angry. This is not a good time for political officials to visit.”

Last week, Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi was met with shouts of “resign!” when he visited the northwestern city of Jendouba to honor a young doctor who died in an accident in a hospital lift.

The tragedy, which drew thousands of protesters in Tunis, was widely accused of official corruption and indifference.

Strikes, roadblocks and protests have grown in recent weeks, demanding more jobs and investment, better working conditions and improvements in the disintegration of public services.

‘Concrete measures, now’

“We have stopped expecting anything from the political class,” said Jamel Bouzidi, a resident of Sidi Bouzid.

“We’re tired of waiting.”

Tunisia’s strongest party, the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha, has fought to lump together a stable majority in the assembly, which currently consists of eight party blocs and two dozen independents – many of whom are deeply opposed.

A debate on women’s rights fell earlier this month to physical violence between Islamist Al-Karama lawmakers and Social Democrats from the Democratic bloc.

Mechichi, Tunisia’s ninth head of government since 2011, is leading a fragile administration.

Saied said in January that he wanted to apologize in the name of the state for human rights violations committed under dictatorships since Tunisia’s independence from France in 1956.

But even the president “disappoints a large part of the electorate”, says Meddeb.

“Why would he go to Sidi Bouzid? To give another speech for the revolution?”

A decade after the uprising, “people no longer have the patience to listen to speeches or announcements or explanations,” Meddeb added.

“They want concrete action now.”