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Extinguishing the flames of the Arab Spring

Tunis – Five years ago today, Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old street vendor, set himself on fire outside a local municipal office in his hometown of Sidi Bouzid to protest against police corruption – a solitary act that would set off a stunning chain of events throughout the Arab world.

In the years since Bouazizi’s death, Tunisia has gone through tremendous change. After street protests forced President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali into exile after two decades of his rule, Tunisia adopted a new constitution and held national elections in 2014.

Earlier this month, the country’s National Dialogue Quartet was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for assisting Tunisia’s transition to democracy.

But despite the changes that have taken place around them, residents of Sidi Bouzid say their lives are no better than they were before the uprising.

“Before the toppling of the regime of Ben Ali, we had hopes,” Ramzi Abdouli, 29, a graduate from Sidi Bouzid, told Al Jazeera. “We thought that maybe when Ben Ali left our reality would change. Unfortunately, it was not the case.”

Like many of Tunisia’s youth, Abdouli participated in the 2010-2011 protests, hoisting banners against the regime. Even after Ben Ali was deposed, Abdouli marched more than 250km from Sidi Bouzid to Tunis in April 2012 to reiterate demands for social justice and employment.

Today, via social media, he remains a relentless critic of the current government and its political affairs – and is pessimistic about the years ahead.

“The youth now in Sidi Bouzid feel that we have been excluded, ignored and marginalised,” he said. “Our demands for social justice and development were ignored.”

Employment was one of the key demands of protesters during Tunisia’s 2010-2011 uprising, but unemployment numbers remain high. The unemployment rate in Tunisia was estimated at 16 percent in 2014, according to the National Statistical Office, and it is believed to be even higher in interior regions such as Sidi Bouzid.

“Yesterday’s expectation and today’s disappointment hide the complexity of political processes that go beyond the pattern of rise and fall in a short period of time,” Salim Bouhlal, a financial adviser, told Al Jazeera.

He added that the rule of law was not enough to improve the dire situation in Sidi Bouzid and other parts of Tunisia unless it was matched with inclusive growth.

“As long as the Tunisian economy remains poor, the situation of Sidi Bouzid’s population will remain extremely fragile and the people will continue to be both hungry and angry.”

Abdouli said that he had recently returned to graduate school after spending five years unsuccessfully looking for a job, and having already earned a bachelor’s degree in multimedia studies. He knocked on many doors and held a series of positions that did not match his level of education, working in call centres and restaurants.

“All those urgent matters that we put on the negotiation table after [the new constitution was passed in] January 2014 have been left to rust away on the shelves,” Abdouli said. “Today, our politicians have succeeded in distracting people with false problems, and have drifted away from discussing [other important] issues.”

Although Sidi Bouzid locals have asked the state to help them secure development projects that would offer long-term solutions to the region’s unemployment crisis, most ongoing projects are related to infrastructure or street construction, providing only short-term job gains.

Due to the overwhelming sense of hopelessness, many Tunisian youths have left the country to join up with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, Abdouli said – including some of his peers.

“I have heard that some of them died already in Syria; others are jailed there,” he said. “They were so youthful, energetic and educated, and when they felt unheard and not taken seriously enough, they decided to leave everything behind and join ISIL.”

“Our dreams are falling apart day in and day out… In a country of 12 million, unemployment creates a fertile soil for terrorism, poverty and corruption,” Abdouli added. “We have to be serious and the state should shoulder its responsibility.”

Cynicism among young people in Tunisia’s interior region has increased noticeably since the uprising, after the progress they were expecting failed to materialise.

Ziad Atia, 23, a journalist from Sidi Bouzid, who is studying to earn a master’s in geography, believes that average Tunisians have been manipulated to serve the elite; once their usefulness ended, he said, they were marginalised and forgotten.

“There was a strong popular movement in Sidi Bouzid until the first elections of the national constituent assembly. After October 2014, the popular movement was completely silenced,” Atia told Al Jazeera, referring to the 2014 parliamentary election that saw the secular Nidaa Tounes party overtake the Islamist Ennahdha party.

Ennahda, in an alliance with the left-wing Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties and the Congress for the Republic parties – dubbed the “Troika” – had previously gained control in the 2011 constituent assembly election.

“When the Islamists rose to power [in 2011], the unionists, media and others invested in continuing the protests and strikes in order to dismantle the Troika government, but when Nidaa Tounes rose to power, the media rolled back to distract the people,” Atia said.

“Even the campaigns that were led during the Nidaa Tounes period were silenced, like the ‘Where is the oil?’ campaign.”

The Where is the oil? campaign was a call for more transparency from Tunisia’s government on the state of the country’s natural resources and mining sectors, and for a fairer distribution of commodities. International companies have been reaping great rewards by exploiting Tunisia’s resources, Atia noted.

Although Abdouli and Atia both agree that greater freedom of speech was one of the uprising’s hard-won gains, they maintain that the government must do far more to respect the human rights of all Tunisians.

“We need politicians with honest intentions,” Abdouli said. “Regions like Sidi Bouzid should be prioritised, because this is where the future of Tunisia lies.”


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