In December of 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi brought the world’s attention to Sidi Bouzid — a governorate located in southern Tunisia — when he set himself aflame, protesting the marginalization of his region by the current government, as well as the unsupportable living conditions there. Ten months and one revolution later, the city itself is on fire.
According to on-the-ground interviews conducted by Tunisia Live, the individuals who stormed Sidi Bouzid’s streets starting late Thursday evening were driven by two main developments: Ennahda’s announcement of Hamadi Jebali as the party’s candidate for Prime Minister and ISIE’s decision to cancel the lists of the Al Aridha party in Sidi Bouzid and several other districts.
In terms of the former, many Sidi Bouzid residents have announced that they oppose Jebali’s candidacy and will reject him as Prime Minister because the current secretary general of Ennahda — like all of Tunisia’s former presidents and most of the country’s political elite — hails from the sahil, the more upscale coastal region of the country. Residents of Sidi Bouzid, as well as those living in the neighboring southern areas, feel that such politicians with coastal origins have historically been either unaware of or unconcerned with their needs.
According to Rawia, an Al Aridha supporter from Tunis, “The South has this complex…All of Tunisia’s presidents were from the coast, so [southerners] want someone from the South to rule.” Individuals protesting in Sidi Bouzid today anticipate that Jebali’s appointment as Tunisia’s next prime minister would maintain the current gap between politicians and local citizens and continue a long tradition of disconnect between Tunisian politics’ isolated halls and reality on the ground.
Moreover, ISIE’s decision to reject several lists of Hechimi Hamidi’s Al Aridha party is also behind the recent disturbances in Sidi Bouzid, as Al Aridha’s list in Sidi Bouzid was one of the those dropped yesterday by the High Authority. Hamidi earned wide support in Sidi Bouzid, due to his local origins and his party’s simple program, which made bold promises to improve the lives of the marginalized residents of the region. Even more, the fact that Sidi Bouzid is Hamidi’s own hometown made the issue much more personal for Sidi Bouzid residents, many of whom saw the rejection of Hamidi and the Al Aridha lists as a wider rejection of the town itself.
Adding to this sense of rebuff is the fact that when ISIE announced its decision to drop several of Hamdi’s lists during a press conference held yesterday, the auditorium full of journalists erupted into cheers and an enthusiastic round of the Tunisian national anthem. The press conference was broadcast publicly on state television, so the jubilant reaction of the crowd did not escape Sidi Bouzid residents.
Furthermore, not long after the airing of the press conference, Hamadi Jebali gave a statement over Tunisia’s Hanibal television station denigrating Al Aridha supporters and questioning the mental state of individuals who voted for Al Aridha. Consequently, many of those protesting today asserted that their action was in response to “a campaign against the region,” led by the media.
Thus, it is not difficult to fathom why Sidi Bouzid residents feel that their intelligence is being ridiculed by the media and politicians alike. In fact, in a video of the protests currently circulating on Facebook, the chant, “You can’t insult the people of Sidi Bouzid,” echoes strikingly throughout the crowd.
Confirming this sentiment, in a phone interview with Tunisia Live, Hosni, Al Aridha’s campaign manager in Sidi Bouzid asserted, “[The decision to invalidate Al Aridha's lists] was an insult to the candidates and to the people of Sidi Bouzid who voted for Al Aridha. [Hamadi Jebali and other critics of Al Aridha] were leading an easy life in exile, yet they think that they have the right to insult and transgress the rights of the people of Sidi Bouzid who have have struggled for years.”
Combine this feeling of disparagement and derision with many Sidi Bouzid area residents’ belief that they have lost their one chance for representation in Tunisia’s new government by a politician who comes from similar origins and who promises (whether realistically or not) to drastically improve their living conditions, and today’s protests are readily explainable.
The flames engulfing Sidi Bouzid’s City Hall, National Guard, and court buildings today echo those that surrounded Bouazizi’s body on December 17th, 2010 in approximately exactly the same location. Both fires were ignited by feelings of indignity and estrangement. A fitting question, then, is what has changed? Jebali’s mocking statements and ISIE’s targeted and rapid investigation into Al Aridha’s electoral activites (several other parties have been accused of elections violations, yet none have received the swift dismissal of their lists that Al Aridha faced) suggest that the answer is, “not much.”
Therefore, although today’s protests have ended, a repeat is inevitable in the near future if Tunisia’s new politicians and media figures do not learn from recent Tunisian history and take appropriate action to address these enduring feelings of marginalization and derision.