In Bouzaiéne, one week after the legislative elections, residents are in mourning. Grieving their revolt, they speak only of disappointment. Here, nothing has changed, neither the high rate of unemployment, nor the shortage of water, nor the loss of dignity. For the residents of Bouzaiéne, the democratic transition has not reached Sidi Bouzid. Slogans like «anti-power» and «anti-system» freshly spray-painted onto walls throughout the city liberate the suppressed voices of the Voiceless.
Revolution Boulevard, Bouzaiène’s only main road
Here, nine young men gave their lives, between 24 December 2010 through 9 January 2011, during violent confrontations with Ben Ali police forces. Four years later, the scenery remains unchanged, as if time in Bouzaiène stands still. The city’s few business close early, while the cafés are perpetually filled with unemployed men. In their conversations still resonate the words «revolution,» «kasbah,» «Bouazizi,» and «the will of the people.»
Borni Slimane, fifty-five years old, of the Awled Slimane League, is a driver at the local agricultural inspection association. Borni did not vote in the legislative elections. In his district of 160 families, only 30 individuals voted. The others boycotted the elections to draw attention to their plight. Borni explains,
We didn’t vote because we know that all of the political parties think only of their own interests. In my district, for years that we have had no water. For the past nine months, even the municipal tanks have stopped coming. Our children lack water at school. Our sheep are dying of thirst, our land suffers from drought…and yet our water tables are full … Why should we vote? If the previously-elected politicians, who reached their positions thanks to our votes, have turned their backs on us, why should we make the same error?
From the Kasbah to police stations…
Two weeks after 14 January, the youth of Bouzaiène decided to go—by foot—to Tunis to demand a revolutionary government, a re-drafting of the constitution, and a transfer of power to the people. The «March of the Free» from Bouzaiène to the Kasbah brought together residents of the country’s marginalized regions who camped in the government square until the nomination of Béji Caid Essebsi. The demonstrators were then chased out of the capital. Some consider that this marked the end of the revolution and the beginning of a political mascarade designed to reinforce the former regime—same old mechanisms, with only new faces. Safouen Bouaziz, young activist and Ben Ali opponent pursued by national authorities for his activism tells us,
We have cut down the old regime, but the roots are still there. When we saw Mohamed Ghannouchi at the head of government and Foued Mbazaa named president of the Republic, we were disgusted, and decided to walk to the Kasbah. The march was symbolic, to show that revolutionary youth of the country’s marginalized regions have a say and want to radically change the power in this country. [Sit-ins at] Kasbah 1 and 2, many sleepless nights, meetings, confrontations with the police, hope … all of this ended with the nomination of Béji Caid Essebsi and what they call «democratic transition.
According to Safouen and other young people in Bouzaiène, the revolution has been confiscated, and those from the country’s many regions who made the revolution have been punished by those in power. The transition process driven by political parties does not meet the people’s desired objectives. Bilel Amaari, a young unemployed blogger, says,
The objective of the Kasbah 1st and 2nd sit-in was to create a revolutionary and citizen-based Constituent Assembly that represents—via activists, not political parties—the country’s different regions. But the government defeated us, dividing our strength amongst political parties that are killing one another amidst police violence and an increase in religious extremism.
Before the courts!
Bilel, Safouen, and other activists were summoned to court by judicial police after publications issued on a Facebook page. According to Bilel,
We were pursued for having criticized the Constituent Assembly, the Minister of the Interior, and the government in general. During the interrogation, the police beat us and threatened to put us in prison if we continued to attack the system.
Since Essebsi’s term as Prime Minister, Bouzaiène, Mazzouna, Meknassi, Bir Lahfay, and central Sidi Bouzid have carried out sit-ins and demonstrations to demand employment, equal distribution of wealth, education, and other social rights. The government has responded to these demands over the past months with a series of lawsuits against the populations involved, and specifically the youth. The campaign «<em>Me too, I also burned a police station» implemented by a group of activists has been the object of hundreds of lawsuits condemning the residents of Sidi Bouzid for having participated in the revolution.
The house of Mohamed Ammari, Bouzaiène’s first martyr
Mohamed Ammari died on 24 December 2010. His father, Bechir Ammari, seventy-seven years old, welcomes us into his home. Since the death of his son, the family has been summoned to court for thirty-five trials. The thirty-sixth will take place soon in Tunis. Like many families of the martyrs [of the revolution], Mohamed’s family refused the compensation offered by the military tribunal. What his family wants is justice and the truth. Who is responsible for the death of these young men? The question remains unanswered. According to the families, the regime is protecting those responsible through a defective justice system. Bechir laments,
I voted because it is my duty, but I have no hope … the day that Ben Ali was deposed, just a few days after the death of my son and other young people, I never imagined that the situation could return to the way it was in so little time. Today, when I see that my children and others in the region are still without work, when I see that poverty and injustice endure, I feel that my son died for nothing. The elections won’t change this reality because there is no justice.
His daughter, Salwa, thirty-five years old, suffers from emotional trauma that has made it difficult for her to speak and communicate normally. With a degree in management, the young woman receives a stipend of 240 dinars a month which she risks losing after a decision to reduce the number of individuals who receive unemployment allowances.
Downtown Sidi Bouzid
Eighty kilometers from Bouzaiène, Sidi Bouzid is more animated by political advertisements. Candidates such as Safi Said, Béji Caid Essebsi, and Slim Riahi have staked their presence on large billboards. In cafés and taxis, there is more talk of Hechmi Hamdi, presidential candidate referred to as «Weld El Bled» (the boy next door) by many Bouzidians. Recently back in Tunisia from abroad, the former Ben Ali opponent has begun a tour throughout the villages of the region.
The Office of Khaled Aouinia
In the very heart of downtown Sidi Bouzid, we visit the office of the lawyer Khaled Aouinia, symbol of resistance during the dark years of Ben Ali’s governance, and brother of Mbarka Brahmi (widow of the late Mohamed Brahmi, deputy of the Popular Front assassinated on July 25th 2013), who has been elected to take part in Tunisia’s new parliament. Although he supported his sister throughout the electoral campaign, Khaled does not hesitate to criticize the country’s political transition process.
In Tunisia there were two diverging paths. The first is that of the Revolution undertaken by marginalized regions and disillusioned youth. The second is that of the elections which have enabled the return of the former regime via the legitimacy of the polls. The many young people who boycotted these elections are extremely disappointed. The Kasbah sit-in was the beginning of the end, when the UGTT–representing the interests of the former ruling party the RCD, the national tribunal of lawyers–defending the Islamists, and the Higher Political Reform Commission (headed by Yadh Ben Achour)– on behalf of liberal interests, confiscated the revolution. All of these forces decided to exclude the youth from the revolution, forcing them to abandon the Kasbah and imposing their own choice to undertake the elections with officials of the former regime and Islamists. Since this defeat, followed by disappointment regarding the formation of the Constituent Assembly, the youth (aside from those who chose to continue the battle) have fallen into drugs and religious extremism…Now we have arrived at a phase where two old men shall decide our fate, explained the lawyer who represents in court the majority of youth prosecuted for their activism.
In front of the main mosque
Bouzidians are also worried about security and terrorism. Taxis are lined up in front of the city’s main mosque, run by Salafists. «Bajbouj [Béji Caid Essebsi] is our candidate in the presidential elections. He is the only one who can control the country and reinstore security», said one of the drivers, surrounded by colleagues who approved his remark. Close by, two young men seated in a café, Marwen and Hassan, sip their coffee in silence. They didn’t vote in the legislative elections and will not participate in the presidential elections. Marwen told Nawaat,
What good does it do? I sent thousands of requests to the governor, to the ministers, to the municipality…and nobody responded. So I’m boycotting. To hell with the country and everyone else.
Beneath the large memorial to Mohamed Bouazizi overlooking Martyr Boulevard, a group of individuals stand together in conversation. They are waiting for the government-issued monthly stipend for the unemployed, retired, and needy. In front of Nawaat’s camera, the conversation turns political. Some denounce State policies that have diminished monthly allowances and do not serve the poor and needy. Others, proclaiming their political affiliations, defend the State which, they assert, cannot tackle the economic crisis without sacrifices.
In this troubled environment that oscillates between abstention and the hopeless vote, Boujemaa Mechi, president of the Independent Regional Authorities for Elections (IRIE) in Sidi Bouzid, examines the situation with a broader perspective:
The turnout rate for elections in Sidi Bouzid is honorable. We have a sixty percent voter participation rate relative to the total number of registered voters. Those who did not vote were students and workers who live in big cities and were not able to return to Sidi Bouzid during the weekend of elections. It is true that the region has been largely disappointed by politics, but this is also the case throughout the whole country. We are trying to improve turnout for the presidential elections, even if the candidates are essentially absent here and have not undertaken serious campaigns in Sidi Bouzid.
We recall that the official High Independent Authority of Elections (ISIE) numbers estimate turnout in Sidi Bouzid to be 59.99 percent, or 110,902 votes. 24.71 percent of these votes were for Nidaa Tounes, 17.12 percent for Ennahdha, 17.14 percent for the Popular Front, 10.65 percent for Courant El Mahabba, and 2.52 percent for the Front National du Salut.
«A second revolution is still possible!»
Days away from presidential elections, not one candidate (except Hechmi Hamdi) has visited Sidi Bouzid. The young people who began the revolution regret their naivety in 2011. «We should have been more firm and more radical in the eradication of the system and its monsters!» admits Safouen Bouaziz. «Here, we don’t forget!» cried one young man from Bouzaiène who is boycotting the elections.
Disheartened by the appearance of the familiar faces of the former regime in the present political scene, Safouen prefers to abstain from voting.
But we will not keep silent! A second revolution is still possible, he tells Nawaat, smiling.