How Revolution Turned Sour in the Birthplace of the Arab Spring
Kim Sengupta returns to the Tunisian city where a street trader's self-immolation changed the course of history
Not a day goes by for Manoubia Bouazizi when she does not think about her son with sorrow. "He was a dutiful boy, he had a long life ahead of him, he martyred himself for justice, for Tunisia, for his community," she declared. "People cannot forget that."
Her 26-year-old, street-trader son has been lodged in the world's memory, too, after his unhappy life and terrible death by self-immolation became the tragic symbol of a nation's suffering in the hands of a dictator's brutal and unforgiving regime. It was this act of despair, goes the narrative, which triggered the uprising in Tunisia and heralded the seismic regional shift that has become known as the Arab Spring.
When I visited Sidi Bouzid in the aftermath of the dictator Zine Al Abedine Ben Ali's flight from Tunis, I found residents exulting in their home's status as the cradle of the revolution. They chanted the name of Mohammed Bouazizi; the family home had become a place of homage with a steady stream of visitors. A female municipal official accused of slapping him – a final act of humiliation which led to him setting himself on fire – was vilified, her relations facing daily abuse.
Eight months on there are now deep doubts among many about the course of the Jasmine Revolution and the story of Mohammed Bouazizi, its iconic sacrificial hero, is enmeshed in accusations and recriminations. His family has left Sidi Bouzid amid the animosity of neighbors; a plaque put up in his name in the town has disappeared and graffiti praising him painted over. The municipal official allegedly responsible for "the slap which rang around the world", Fedya Hamdi, has claimed that the slap never happened and that she was made a scapegoat. She has since been freed from prison, with all charges dropped, to cheers from a crowd gathered outside the courtroom.
As the elections in Tunisia, the first among the newly democratic states of North Africa and the Middle East, approach next month, Bouazizi is increasingly seen as a footnote rather than the catalyst of the uprising. And Sidi Bouzid, for its part, now has new martyrs – a 14-year-old boy shot dead during a demonstration, a man killed at a police station after threatening to expose official corruption.
Mohammed Bouazizi, however, continues to garner plaudits abroad. The EU Parliament has selected him as a nominee for this year's Sakharov Prize, awarded to those who had played a pivotal role in bringing freedom to their country. In Paris Mohammed Bouazizi Square was named in the 14th Arrondissement by the city's mayor, with his mother, Manoubia, and one of his sisters as guests of honour
But for many people in Sidi Bouzid and elsewhere in Tunisia this is seen as an example of a Western instinct to personalize and, in the process, trivialize the Tunisian revolution – only to ignore it as the focus moved on to later rebellions in countries deemed more important.
"We started the revolution which led to all the others. But all we got in return were a few pats on the head from Europe and America," said Ziad Ali Karimi, an activist during the uprising in Sidi Bouzid. "Look at all the money they spent on Libya. Why? Because of oil contracts."
"Now they are offering all kinds of help to Libya, which is already a rich country. Here, we get nothing. The economic situation just gets worse, and we wonder why we risked so much in rising up against Ben Ali and his gangsters."
Manoubia Bouazizi and her family are also in the firing line after leaving town. "Who paid for them to go? Who put them up in expensive hotels?" asked Fatima Um Mourad, whose brother, Adnan Mohammed, was arrested during a protest march. "Shouldn't the money have been spent here? The people here have got nothing. But his family, well they made a lot of money out of all this, now they live in luxury, in a big villa."
Another former neighbor, 18 year old Seif Amri, maintained: "They made their fortune and they left. But none of us have benefited, things here are as bad as ever."
It is true that Ms Bouazizi and her six remaining children have moved to the seaside at La Marsa, a suburb of the capital, Tunis. They now live in a medium-sized apartment, by no means lavish, for which they pay a rent of $200 a month. There is a small vegetable patch in the front and one room and the siblings share rooms and a study. "I know some people are telling lies about us," Manoubia said. She shook her head. "When he died, people came to me and said it was not just me who had lost a son, the whole village has lost a son. Now they say this. It is really bad."
"That woman [Fedya Hamdi] is free because I agreed to the prosecution ending. I wanted things to settle down. Now her family is even saying that there was no slap. Was my son lying? What about people who saw her hit him?"
Samia, 20, one of Mohammed's sisters, wanted to stress: "We have not made a fortune, that is just untrue. We had to move because the other house was too small and this is a nice area."
"I heard we were given a lot of money by Ben Ali, $15,000 some people said. They also said we sold Mohammed's vegetable cart to a movie producer. That is not true. People say these things because they are jealous. They are angry because things are not improving fast. That is not our fault."
That anger led to fresh outbreaks of violence in Sidi Bouzid in August, during which protesters pelted soldiers with rocks and they replied with live rounds. A 14-year-old boy, Thabit Hajlaoui, was shot dead. His father, Bilghassim Hajlaoui, spoke of his grief and bewilderment. "He was not throwing anything, but why did they have to fire guns just because there were some stones thrown. You lose a boy, your own blood, for what? They said they were sorry my son has been killed, but no one has been arrested. They are now behaving like the way they behaved in Ben Ali's time."
The feeling that the security forces continue to be a threat to ordinary people was reinforced by what happened to 36-year-old Adel Hammami, a computer technician, who died after saying he had evidence of corruption in the RCD, the former regime's party, many of whose members will contest the coming election.
Mr Hammami died seven months ago after going to a police station to answer questions. But it is only recently that questions began to be asked about the killings and four policemen were eventually arrested. The charge they faced, however, was downgraded from the equivalent of manslaughter to a public order offense.
His sister Mongia was furious. "They had plotted to kill him as soon as he started talking about corruption," she said. "He was beaten up and very badly injured by a group of people who walked into his office.
"The police told my brother that they were worried about other attacks, that his daughter, my niece would be kidnapped. He went to the police station and that is where he died. The police told us at first that it was an accident. But a doctor's report proved what really happened. We want justice, we don't want things going back to the way they were."
But many Tunisians seem to think that is exactly the way things are going. A poll carried out by the Applied Social Sciences Forum, a think tank, carried out last month found that the percentage of the population optimistic about the future has fallen to 24 per cent. Sidi Bouzid recorded the highest level of distrust in the progress of the revolution at 62.1 per cent. Nationally youth unemployment stands at 30 per cent; in the Sidi Bouzid region it is 42 per cent.
Faith in the electoral process leading to a better future has also dissipated, with less than half of those eligible to vote in the coming polls having so far registered to do so. While Western observers wonder about the emergence of Islamists as a dominant force in parliament, the crucial issue in places such as Sidi Bouzid is stark. "It is about jobs so we can at least feed our family," said Ziad Ali Karimi. "And if the politicians can't provide that there will be another revolution."
The consequences of that economic gloom have been grim. Recently five men attempted to hang themselves at Kasserine, 60 miles away. They were all university graduates who had been seeking, and failing to get jobs, for years. All survived, although a 43-year-old man, at the upper age limit for joining the civil service, hitherto a stable source of employment, remains seriously ill.
For her part, Fedya Hamdi, the municipal employee accused of hitting Mr Bouazizi, considers herself yet another victim of the system. She had spent three months in jail before being found not guilty at her trial. The prosecution produced only one witness who supposedly saw the infamous slap and he was discredited under cross-examination.
"It was bad in prison, but at the time no one would listen to me," she said. "I was not responsible for what happened to him but I am very sorry that he killed himself. I am very sorry about all the others who had died. We just need to stand together now and not just keep blaming each other. Otherwise we'll never move forward, we will all suffer."