Ten years later, anger is rising within the Tunisian metropolis the place the “Arab Spring” started


© Reuters. The philosophy teacher Athmouni watches as he stands on a street in Sidi Bouzid


By Angus McDowall and Tarek Amara

SIDI BOUZID, Tunisia (Reuters) – Ten years ago a fruit seller set himself on fire in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid after an argument with a police officer about where he left his car.

News of Mohammed Bouazizi's deadly defiance spread quickly, sparking nationwide protests that eventually toppled Tunisia's longtime leaders and sparked similar uprisings across the region – the so-called "Arab Spring".

Huge demonstrations broke out in Egypt and Bahrain, governments fell and civil war engulfed Libya, Syria and Yemen.

The Tunisians can now freely choose their leaders and publicly criticize the state. Despite the chaos they went through, many people look back on the events of 2010 and regret that their dreams have remained unfulfilled.

"Something went wrong in the revolution," said Attia Athmouni, a retired philosophy teacher who led the uprising after Bouazizi's death by standing on the abandoned fruit vendor's cart the night of his death to address the crowd.

In recent weeks, protests against unemployment, poor government services, inequality and bottlenecks have broken out again in the poorer cities of Tunisia in the south.

The scramble for enough cooking gas for families underscores the difficulties common people face in a country where the economy is stagnating and the public is as angry as it was a decade ago.

Last week, near Sidi Bouzid, a crowd laid large stones across the asphalt to block a main road. They wanted trucks to bring cylinders of cooking gas into town and dump them in their village instead.

Supply has been scarce in Tunisia since people who produced the gas near the state's main factory closed the plant a few weeks ago to demand more local jobs.

In front of the main outlet for cooking gas in Sidi Bouzid, three riot police vans guarded the gate while hundreds of people waited to get their hands on the full bottles.

A woman at the head of the crowd said she had no gasoline for three days and that her family only ate cold food. She had been in line for six and a half hours.


Larger demonstrations could take place in Tunisia on Thursday, the anniversary of Bouazizi's self-immolation, after his fruit cart was confiscated when he refused to leave an unlicensed spot.

Slimane Rouissi, another Sidi Bouzid activist and former teacher who knew Bouazizi's family, said the young man had experienced a number of disappointments prior to the last confrontation.

He soaked himself in gasoline and killed himself outside the local governorate.

When Athmouni, the retired teacher, heard about the incident, he dismissed his class and called on his students to protest.

That night, when hundreds of people gathered in front of the governorate and sang slogans, he heard for the first time the words "The people want the overthrow of the regime" – soon the catchphrase of the Tunisian revolution.

In the coming weeks the protests increased. By January 2011, thousands marched in Tunis and President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, who had been in power for 23 years, realized the game was over. He fled to Saudi Arabia, where he died in exile last year.

Tunisia's revolution spread. In Egypt, the masses forced Hosni Mubarak out of power after 30 years as president. Riots rocked Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen.

Hope for a new democratic future soon turned to bloodshed, especially in Syria, Yemen and Libya, where civil wars attracted great powers who feared their regional enemies would gain an advantage.

Although Tunisia's path to democracy has been much smoother, its economy has deteriorated and political leaders seem paralyzed.

Last year's elections resulted in a bitterly fragmented parliament that failed to produce a stable government. The parties fought over cabinet seats and postponed major decisions.

More Tunisians are trying to leave the country illegally than ever before, while visions of jihad attract alienated, unemployed youth. Both dynamics were evident in the recent attack by a young Tunisian migrant in Nice, in which three people were killed in a church.

"There is now a rift between politicians and people because the system cannot understand the demands of the street," Athmouni said bitterly in a Sidi Bouzid café full of unemployed young men.


In the streets near Bouazizi's old house – a shabby one-story building behind a dented metal gate – a group of young men stood chatting on a street corner.

Sabri Amri, 26, laughed when asked if he had voted in any of the post-revolution elections in Tunisia. All he and his group of friends want is to emigrate, he said. There is no work and young people spend their time drinking or using drugs, he added.

"We have geniuses here – doctors, engineers. I know a mechanical engineer. What is he doing now? He just sells weeds for life," said Abdullah Gammoudi, a qualified PE teacher who has no job.

In Sidi Bouzid, the only concrete signs of investment since 2011 are a new building outside the city to replace the headquarters of the governorate where Bouazizi died and his memorial – a stone fruit cart scrawled with graffiti that reads: "People want … "

37-year-old Mohammed Bouali stood behind the government offices on the main street of Sidi Bouzid. His car was full of oranges, apples, and bananas. He and Bouazizi worked on the same street.

Although his job – weighing fruit for customers with a small hand scale – is not enough to support his two children, he has few other options.

"The government will not provide anything," he said.

The policewoman who confiscated Bouazizi's cart 10 years ago is still patrolling the same streets, removing unlicensed vendors from their parking spaces.

Athmouni believes the answer is more protests. Mass uprisings in Algeria and Sudan only ousted entrenched leaders there last year.

"I am convinced that the revolution is continuous," he said. "This year there is more anger than in the past."

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