Sidi Bouzid, One Year On

Demonstrators run through the streets of Sidi Bouzid on January 10, 2011

On December 17, 2010, a young street vendor from a little-known city in an impoverished region of Tunisia made a difficult decision that would spark a revolution in his own country and change the face of the Middle East at large. It is no small feat to be credited with bringing about the first steps towards democracy in (now) five countries (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria) where participatory politics were illusory and dictatorships the norm. But Mohammed Bouazizi—then a “nobody” in a country where connections meant advancement and where humble origins were often a life-long sentence—changed all that.

Since last December, Mohammed Bouazizi has been immortalized. Tunisia’s streets, which once remembered former President Ben Ali’s coup d'état, now recall the young father of the Arab Spring. Though superficial, changing a street name to commemorate an individual carries significant meaning in former autocracies, where images of dictators are ubiquitous. They echo the greater changes that have taken place, which in Tunisia include the successful management of the country by the caretaker government, and most importantly, the first legitimate elections in decades.

[inset_left]Sidi Bouzid is particularly representative of the problems that have plagued Tunisia as a result of poor governance[/inset_left]The Tunisian revolution has become the benchmark by which neighboring countries measure their progress towards reform. And certainly, Tunisia has made important strides in addressing the grievances that led to the revolution in the first place, from increasing the scope of participatory politics to acknowledging the importance of wealth distribution. However, to truly understand the progress made and the challenges the country continues to face, it is important to account for how the revolution impacted the city where it all began.

Sidi Bouzid is particularly representative of the problems that have plagued Tunisia as a result of poor governance. Unable to benefit from the trickle down effects of income-generating cities on the coast of the country, Sidi Bouzid has suffered endemic unemployment and was in many ways at the lower end of the spectrum with regards to internal economic disparities.

Politically, it is fair to argue that Sidi Bouzid has increased its importance, if only symbolically in comparison to its former position. Not only does the rest of the country continuously acknowledge that the revolution originated in Sidi Bouzid, but so does the international community. The number of events, awards, and other commemorations acknowledging the role the city played in the revolution are innumerable. This year on 17 December, for instance, the government will hold the first “International Festival of the December 17 Revolution” in Sidi Bouzid rather than in the country’s capital. According to a government official, the decision to hold the festival there was in part to “rehabilitate the governorate, given their role in setting in motion the events of this January.”

The prestige the once disenfranchised region has acquired has given its community important leverage in the country’s burgeoning political pluralism. Ennahdah, the Islamist party that won this fall’s elections, set up its headquarters in the governorate. It was another symbolic gesture, but certainly one that allowed the community to influence the party’s current agenda. Indeed, it is not entirely coincidental that the party’s goals of addressing the corrupt practices of the former regime and ensuring that the economic conditions of Tunisians improve fall in line with the city’s main concerns.

Sidi Bouzid is still representative of the challenges the country will face in the transitional process. For one, the governorate has not escaped the flare ups of political violence, which—although less serious than those in Tunisia’s neighboring countries—have continued in the aftermath of the revolution. Just prior to the election there were a number of security incidents when a candidate from the region was barred from the polls, as a result of his party’s improper access to funding. The violence that broke out led to the imposition of a curfew and cost an estimated 4 million dinars (or about 2 million pounds sterling).

Though political instability cannot be fully blamed for the economic challenges the region faces, such events do not help improve the standard of living of its citizens’ nor do they increase prospects of investment or employment. Economically speaking Sidi Bouzid has a far way to go, and unfortunately the demands of the revolution in this regard have been largely unmet, not only in the area but throughout the country.

Confirming these claims, the transitional government recently released an assessment of the economic situation of the Tunisia. The “White Book” takes an important and timely look at the current economic picture of the country, pointing out that the interior regions are the least industrialized, with limited activities likely to stimulate development. They also continue to lag in terms of unemployment, poverty, education, healthcare and investment.

Sidi Bouzid has not been able to escape these challenges. With a 41 percent unemployment rate, the governorate continues to have almost double the national average of 23.3 percent. As part of the Midwest region (alongside governorates of Kairouan and Kasserine), it is also home to the highest poverty rate of 12.84 percent compared to the national average of 3.75 percent.

To make matters worse, for a country that prides itself on free access to education and close to universal literacy, Sidi Bouzid has one of the highest drop-out rates of the country at 2.6 percent with only Kairouan and Kasserine surpassing that measure with 3.5 and 4 percent respectively.

Indeed these statistics leave much to be desired for the city that inspired the demands of political freedom and economic justice. Yet, there is a silver lining to Sidi Bouzid’s future. Its central role in the revolution has helped to bring it to the attention of international donors and investors who would otherwise fund projects elsewhere. Since last December the city has benefited from a Turkish project to set up an agricultural processing plant. It is expected that this project will create some 9,000 jobs with accordingly important spill-over effects on the local economy. Other examples include the creation of training courses in renewable energy for young unemployed graduates by the National Agency for Energy Control and the German Technical Cooperation Agency, with the aim of strengthening the qualifications of Tunisian technicians and experts in the area of renewable energy while creating economic opportunities for the impoverished region. Though these projects are not the panacea that will solve the economic problems of the disadvantaged regions in the country, they are certainly an important step in the right direction.

Overall, while Sidi Bouzid continues to struggle economically and will have to continue to work hard to see the changes it needs in this area, the revolution has at the very least set the stage for the type of economic reform that will render regional disparities obsolete and allow for similar cities to benefit from the latent wealth of the country.

Sidi Bouzid may have changed the future of Tunisia and the region over the course of a few days when it set in motion the revolution, but the governorate’s objectives can only be truly and completely achieved through the proper management of the national economy and the continued transparency of the political system. As such the objectives of Mohamed Bouazizi and his supporters will take time to achieve, but Sidi Bouzid is certainly on its way to achieve them.