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2011-02-11

Sidi Bouzid: the city behind the Tunisian revolution

Text and photos by Monia Ghanmi for Magharebia in Sidi Bouzid - 11/02/11

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For decades, the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid was mired in poverty and unemployment. The rural outpost was mostly forgotten by its country and ignored by the rest of the world.

That all changed on December 17th, when 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze and ignited a revolution.

Bouazizi's story is now legend. To make ends meet, the unemployed graduate sold vegetables and fruit without a permit. After a female officer publicly slapped him and confiscated his goods, the desperate young man poured petrol on himself in front of the prefecture and lit a match. He died 19 days later.

In Bouazizi's old neighbourhood of el-Nour, walls near his house are covered with graffiti. "This is the location of the revolution," one painted banner reads. Foreign journalists and local sight-seers have converged on his street.

He had been the sole provider for his family of eight. His mother still lives in their modest home.

"It's true that I've lost my son, but I'm proud of what he has done," Bouazizi's mother Mannoubia says.

His sister Leila feels the same, telling Magharebia that her brother was responsible for the revolution that gave the Tunisian people long-denied freedoms. He could never have imagined that his act would bring light to his city after 23 years of darkness.

Home of the revolution

Sidi Bouzid's main squares and secondary schools, once named "November 7th" in commemoration of ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's rise to power, have been renamed for Bouazizi.

"We all want to forget the injustice and oppression that were exercised against us in the past and to start on a new foundation," says Wajdi Masmoudi, a young man taking photos of a memorial to those killed in the uprising.

Bouazizi's father was a street vendor of vegetables and grains. Bouazizi inherited the cart when he died. Several Gulf businessmen have offered to buy the now-legendary vegetable cart, but his family refuses to relinquish it for any price.

Since Bouazizi's death, vegetables carts have multiplied across Sidi Bouzid. To remember Bouazizi, customers want to encourage this kind of trade.

Sidi Bouzid, home to more than 410,000 people, is an agricultural province known for its vegetables and olive oil. A study conducted last year by the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) found that the poverty rate in this rural province was more than 12.8%, and that the annual expenditure per person was 1,138 Tunisian dinars (591 euros).

Here in Sidi Bouzid, the unemployment rate among male graduates is 25%, while the Tunisia unemployment rate is about 14%.

For young women, it is even worse: unemployment among female university graduates in Sidi Bouzid is about 44%, while the national average is 19%.

And yet, despite the marginalisation of residents and the lack of resources, the student exam passage rate is among the highest in Tunisia. In the wake of the revolution, students here were eager to return to class: "We wasted so much time already," said bac student Jihan Ghanmi. "We need to go back to school so things can get back to normal."

Students outperform national averages but fail to find jobs. Many young people are forced to leave home and head north – to the major companies and factories – to find work. Others turn to the black market to make ends meet.

"What do you want us to do?" wondered al-Asaad Ammari, a seller of illegal gasoline. "Our town doesn't have any plants or companies where we can work. Therefore, I was forced to work in this sector in spite of its negative effects on health," he tells Magharebia.

Some young people with university degrees end up working in the region's main business: farming.

"I graduated two years ago, but I couldn't find a job," Sabir Brahimi tells Magharebia. "Therefore, I decided to help my father in cultivating the land until I find an opportunity to work in my field."

Hatim al-Nasri, a holder of a university degree in IT, attributes the problems in Sidi Bouzid to the lack of equality among provinces. Under Ben Ali, he complains to Magharebia, the government's focus on the coastal cities and tourist areas ended up marginalising the internal provinces.

Places like Sidi Bouzid have paid the price.

"Have we committed a sin by being born in Sidi Bouzid?" Hatim al-Nasri wonders.

Development on the horizon

Along with rampant unemployment, Sidi Bouzid has faced a healthcare crisis. Its nearly half-million residents are served by just 45 specialist doctors.

Habib Touil criticises the poor equipment, shortage of staff and long waiting lists.

"Medical services at the hospital are mediocre because of the lack of haemodialysis, scanners, and other things, which force patients to seek medical assistance in neighbouring cities," Touil says.

The interim government is determined to see some changes. On February 4th, a special shipment of medical equipment arrived at the hospital of Sidi Bouzid.

In the wake of Bouazizi's death, heightened interest in Sidi Bouzid may finally bring some long-awaited development to the region.

American-owned MASS Group Corporation wants to construct a cement plant in the province. The firm submitted an official request to the Tunisian Ministry of Industry to execute a giant industrial investment project in Sidi Bouzid worth some 300 million euros.

MASS group's Tunisia manager Hassan Amamdia said the company was waiting for an official response to start executing the project, which would include the construction of an energy-saving cement plant with an annual production capacity of 1 million tonnes.

The project will create more than 1,500 jobs.

The largest Tunisian dairy company also rushed to build a centre in Sidi Bouzid province. The facility is expected to start production in early 2013.

Meanwhile, the people of Sidi Bouzid are waiting for the execution of these projects, which they believe will solve the problem of unemployment and improve social conditions for residents.

"I hope that security and stability will be restored to our country as soon as possible so that these investments may start their work," says Huda al-Abduli.

"I also hope that these projects will be a new turning point for the area and open up new horizons for youth in the region to develop their skills and achieve their goals," she tells Magharebia.

A German firm also intends to invest in Sidi Bouzid. The Leoni Group, which manufactures cables and car components, said it plans to "establish a plant in Sidi Bouzid in the new year, which will create nearly 1,000 job opportunities".

The company already employs 12,000 at its plants in Sousse, Bizerte and Ben Arous.

"It is a good initiative," says local resident Dhouha Bargougi. "All Tunisian provinces must benefit equally from investment ventures so as to achieve just development and eradicate all forms of national discrimination."

"We, the people of the inside provinces, the cradle of the blessed revolution, have had enough oppression, marginalisation and alienation," she adds.

Thanks to a young vegetable vendor, the region may finally get the attention it deserves.

On Sunday (February 6th), residents of Sidi Bouzid saw first-hand what Bouazizi's sacrifice means to the rest of Tunisia. The governorate of Sidi Bouzid hailed a thank-you convoy of more than 100 cars and four buses. Citizens from across Tunisian cities took part to express their gratitude to the province that witnessed the first spark of revolution.

"Tunisia's future is going to be bright, thanks to the unity of its citizens," Sidi Bouzid resident Wael Hajlaoui said.

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    kamel belgacem 2011-2-12

    We want them to take care of the sons of our people including young people of the south.

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    سيدي بوزيد 2011-2-12

    In the name of God the Beneficent the Merciful. After the death of Bouazizi of his severe wounds, many citizens including women and young people set themselves ablaze for ordinary and simple reasons of daily life of all citizens to the point that setting oneself ablaze became a tradition. What a hideous tradition that kills people! I think, God knows better, that there is no need to glorify the act of Bouazizi. Enough encouraging immolation of bodies! Many victims fell as a result of glorifying the act of Bouazizi. So let’s not give the issue more importance as it will encourage people with weak faith and personality to do such hideous acts which will lead to their perdition and we will be accountable for their deeds on the Day of Judgment. Suicide and destruction of the body are banned by God. Peace, mercy and blessings of God be upon you.

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