Tag Archives: sidi bouzid

Tunisia a year later: misplaced priorities

Sure, it’s January 14th, 2012 – marking a year after Ben Ali’s departure from Tunisia. When he fled, most Tunisians were not sure whether they were witnessing reality or a mere passing dream. The ecstasy in the air was a collective one that united all Tunisians.

But in memory of this moment of ecstasy, Tunisians are celebrating separately. In La Chebba, a small city in the coastal state of Mahdia, two celebrations were taking place: supporters of the Islamist party Ennahda held celebrations at a local park, while supporters of left-wing parties (including Ettajdid, the Progressive Democratic Party, and the Tunisian Communist Party) held a march down Chebba’s main street. They chanted, “No America, no Qatar, Tunisia is free,” along with a dash of, “We say no to backwardness – no caliphate.” Now, while I agree wholeheartedly with the general message of non-intervention, I sometimes question why they think today of all days is a good day to spread it. All it takes is a glance over their shoulders to notice that the lady living down the street cannot afford to buy a bottle of gas to cook with. All it takes is a short walk across the street to hear a mother complain about how ever since her children reached 5th grade, she can no longer help them with their homework. The celebrations in the park, on the other hand, were insulated. They insinuated a completion of the “revolution.” It’s all said and done for many of those present – democracy, new government, mission accomplished / la vie en rose. The party they voted for won, and given some ingrained cultural vestiges left by the old regime, that’s more than enough to ensure stability and prosperity in the country.

These ideological divisions are happening due to one reason: the government’s lack of direct and systematically executed communication with the residents of any Tunisian cities besides the capital.

Tunisian leaders now have a new penchant for inviting foreign dignitaries day in and day out. Ever since its inception, all the new government has been doing is inviting various heads of state and making “agreements” – what they entail exactly, most of the Tunisian population has no idea. Some Constituent Assembly members, along with a few ministers, have made trips to the interior. On one of the trips to Gafsa, a minister witnessed yet another incident of self-immolation: Ammar Gharsallah, a father of three, lit himself on fire after the minister refused to meet with him. Gharsallah is unemployed and has actively participated in the sit-ins that have been taking place the past few weeks in front of the Gafsa governmental office. The acts of self-immolation happen for a reason: despair. I hate to be the one stating the obvious but it seems that many of our politicians do not understand how to allay this feeling. As PM Jebali invites Ismail Haniya, people are burning – if not literally, they are burning internally with despair.

In Gafsa, Rdayef, Gassrine, and Sidi Bouzid. As Marzouki speaks with the Emir of Qatar, the President of Algeria, and Head of the Libyan transitional council Mustafa Abdul Jalil, Tunisians are striking. Protesting. Crying for attention from a most humble base. Life cannot – and should not – go as per usual until the demands of these protesters are met. Even though its only been a year since the former regime was overthrown, the months pass by as an eternity for many who, with thwarted dreams, are still waiting. Waiting on remedial action from the new government.

“But the government just recently got its act together – how do you expect them to meet the demands in a month?” This is what I’ve been hearing time and time again. I used to say this myself. This is what the government can do: instead of “visiting” Gassrine, perhaps they can jumpstart the reorganization of internal municipal structures while they’re there. They can start providing training for the enactment of internal democratic procedures. They can begin the development of the interior regions – not through agreements with the Qatari Emir, but rather from the bottom up. Ask local residents what they need – document their needs. Work with local civic organizations in doing so. Then, open up business bids to fulfill these demands. Then, show residents of the cities you are visiting progress reports. In the example of opening up of a new factory, a study can be distributed to local city councils detailing how much is invested in the project, expected output, expected number of jobs, expected net gain to the city. The government (health ministry) can also begin renovating and reconditioning local hospitals. The government can also start by organizing their own respective offices – dividing the workload appropriately and allocating adequate human resources to enter the long-neglected interior areas. I can really go on for another page about what the government can do.

I understand that establishing a new political tone on the international stage is important. But what is more pressing are the domestic issues that absolutely must be faced.

The celebrations held in a local cultural center in Melloulech (a small town about 13 kilometers away from Chebba) were the most heartwarming – and the most honest. There, a united group of local residents gathered for the unveiling of a freshly painted mural, and schoolchildren sang some songs honoring the uprisings. They also had a short play enacting the heroic sacrifices of the young men and women who were brave enough to bare their chests to live fire. They poignantly expressed solidarity with each other as Tunisians. At this celebration, no lofty debates about nationalism and communism and islamism took place. No highbrow mentions of a looming caliphate or an “unclean” media were made. Instead, the air was imbued with patient optimism that recognized the feats of the past while critically looking ahead.

The mural unveiled at Dar el Chabeb in Melloulech

Bouazizi’s family: “We know that Mohamed would be proud of Tunisia today”

Some of Bouazizi's siblings on their way to Sidi Bouzid

On their first visit to Sidi Bouzid since Eid el-Adha a few weeks ago, Mohamed Bouazizi’s family left their new abode in La Marsa, a suburb northwest of Tunis, pn  to pay their hometown a visit. In Sidi Bouzid, festivities are being held all weekend in honor of the young Bouazizi’s sacrifice to the Tunisian uprisings which sparked upheavals against systems of tyranny around the world.

Since their move to  La Marsa however, the family has had little time to reconnect with each other or process how their kin has altered the course of history. The media glare certainly has not left much time for reflection – due to interviews conducted across the globe to recording different shows, their move has barely even sunk in.

Sidi Bouzid has remained on their minds, however. The youngest of the Bouazizis, Zied, a 9-year old with a twinkle in his eyes every time he smirks, expressed longing for his hometown and the people in it. “I miss my friends in [Sidi] Bouzid, so I am very excited to visit,” he said.

But the homecoming has not been as sentimental for the Bouazizis as it may initially appear to be. Upon opening the door to the family’s modest house today for the first time since Eid el-Adha, the family was greeted with trash and broken glass bottles strewn across their front yard. “Maybe it’s the wind that blew all the rubbish into the yard,” one of Mohamed’s sisters said in an effort to detract from the mess.

Bouazizi's sisters cleaning up the mess found in their front yard this evening

One of their neighbors, whom Bouazizi’s mother Manoubia alleges is spreading rumors about the family, also started building a house with an outer wall edging into the Bouazizi household. “See what they have done? They have no shame – we have to deal with this nonsense as we still figure out how to get our life together,” said Manoubia.

One source of controversy in the town is whether or not Mohamed died as a shaheed [martyr]. In Islam, suicide is considered a major sin. Hence, some hold the opinion that Mohamed should not be celebrated as a heroic or exemplar figure. When Salem, Mohamed’s older brother, was asked how he would respond to the statement that his brother is not a martyr, he responded saying, “Listen, only God knows whether he is a martyr. But how do you think he developed the courage to perform such an action? It is from the desperation that he felt.”

For the family, the best way to commemorate Mohamed’s courage is by attempting to go back to life as per usual. “We want to steer clear of any talk and to build our family anew,” Manoubia said. One of her daughters, Laila, 25, aspires to go to Montreal to complete her higher education studies, and one of her sons, Karim, 15, aspires to be a rapper one day.

“Whereever fate may take my children, I only wish for them to work hard and with an honest attitude,” Manoubia said.

Manoubia Bouazizi, Mohamed's mother

Manoubia however ended the night on a hopeful note: “Sooner or later people will organize themselves  and work collectively to serve the interests of the country in such an orderly way that even a president won’t be needed.”

“We will vote for the party of bread.”

Photo by Lauren E. Bohn

“We don’t have faith in politics. Not before, not now. Just show us projects and development, no fancy ideas,” he demands. “We’ll vote for the party of bread.”

After reading Lauren E. Bohn’s article “Tunisia’s Forgotten Revolutionaries,” in Foreign Policy tonight, several questions came to mind:

  • How come the citizens of the country wish to vote for the party that simply facilitates the means to ends – if not the ends themselves, as a government should be partially responsible for – yet, almost every single political party in Tunisia (newly formed or otherwise) seems to be campaigning on ideological issues?
  • How is it that ideology has emerged as a rallying epicenter, not only for the 90 or so political parties and their partnering ideologues, but also for the citizens?
  • Assuming that ideology merits high standing in the realm of developmental importance, why is it that it has not been coupled with any sort of definitive programs?
  • Lastly, we all know that ideology does indeed influence any political platform’s practical ability and style – only if the ideology is translated. For example, while PDP waxes poetic about women’s rights, why have no concrete women’s empowerment programs been campaigned on?

The answer to a few of these questions is the simple fact that most political parties in Tunisia currently lack organizational capacity. With close to zero civic activity allowed under the former regime and the political vacuum created post-January 14, who is to blame? Yet, it is pivotal for any party to seriously refocus their efforts to stand a chance. Currently, the political theatre is plagued with misplaced ideological priorities – most debates center, clumsily flounder, and finally crash at the mention of  Ennahda’s “real” intentions or PDP’s secret RCD members in drag. Yet, we must awake to the fact that whether or not a cafe serves wine is trivial when contrasted to the livelihoods of everyday Tunisians, the grave underdevelopment of the South, or the right to freely unionize.

At the end of the day, of course, the freedom to express oneself does include the right to choose one’s beverage of choice. But until then, show us some sustainable solutions to help jumpstart the economy. Show us solutions that will open up our trading horizons.  Show us solutions that will prevent Chinese MNCs from (again) misusing our resources and taking advantage of our local populations. Show us your solution to the unemployment rate – what will your party tell the young 25-year-olds sitting at the cafe all day?

Show us (and not tell) – are you the party of bread?