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Tunisian president heckled on Arab Spring anniversary

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2012-12-17

Protesters hurled rocks and heckled Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki on Monday, demanding quicker reforms during a commemoration marking two years since a frustrated fruit vendor set himself alight, sparking the Arab Spring.

Exactly two years after a harassed young fruit vendor in the provincial Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid set himself alight in frustration, sparking what has come to be known as the Arab Spring, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki was heckled on Monday during a wreath-laying ceremony at the tomb of the best-known martyr of Tunisia’s revolution.

"You came a year ago and you promised things would change in six months, but nothing has changed,” shouted one protester.

"We do not want you here," added another.

Hours later, when the Tunisian president had just finished delivering an address in the town’s main square square, rocks were hurled at the podium just as parliamentary speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar was about to speak.

Security forces swiftly evacuated the two politicians to a regional government headquarters, according to an AFP journalist, and there were no reports of injuries.

On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire outside Sidi Bouzid’s
local government offices in protest over the confiscation of his wares and repeated harassment by local officials.

He died in hospital weeks later – after a visit by then President Zine al Abidine Ben Ali, who saw his authority unravelling in the angry aftermath of the self-immolation, but was powerless to prevent his ouster on January 14, 2011, becoming the first statesman-victim of the Arab Spring.

‘The economic situation is worse than under Ben Ali’

Since that fateful day when Sidi Bouzid earned its place in history as the cradle of the revolution, Bouazizi’s forlorn face is ubiquitous across this town, adorning government buildings and public spaces.

But two years later, many Tunisians are frustrated by the country’s deteriorating socio-economic situation as the new democratically elected government struggles to improve job prospects in a country with a 19% national unemployment rate with youth jobless figures much higher in some areas.

In towns such as Sidi Bouzid, miles away from the more prosperous coastal regions, anger has been mounting due to the lack of jobs as well as the sort of police arrogance and official intimidation that led Bouazizi to his fiery grave.

“On the political side, there has been freedom of expression since last year’s elections,” said FRANCE 24’s David Thomson, reporting from Sidi Bouzid. “But most Tunisians have forgotten about the political progress because the economic situation is worse than under Ben Ali. The revolution has adversely affected the economy.

Youth unemployment is as high as 40% in some interior areas. The result is that while expectations are high, the economic and social context that led Sidi Bouzid to revolt two years ago is the same today.”

‘We can't eat liberty and democracy’

The outrage was evident during Monday’s second anniversary commemorations, when protesters stormed the town square as the president was delivering a commemoration address, screaming “Get out! Get out!” – the same cry demonstrators employed during the uprising against Ben Ali.

Against the economic malaise, strikes are a frequent occurrence across post-revolutionary Tunisia – followed, in some case, by clashes, heavy police crackdowns and attacks by hardline Islamists.

“There are frequent social riots that often turn violent and each time, these riots are violently repressed by the police,” explained Thomson.

Last week, Tunisia’s main labour union, the UGTT, called off a planned nationwide strike to protest what it said was an attack on its offices by allies of the ruling moderate Islamist Ennahda party.

Amid widespread fears that if the strike went ahead it could spark fresh violence, Marzouki postponed visits to Poland and Bulgaria due to the “delicate situation in the country and political friction,” according to a statement released by the presidential office.

Days before the second anniversary, angry Sidi Bouzid residents criticised the government’s economic record since the October 2011 election – the first free and fair poll in this North African nation.

“Mohammed Bouazizi set fire to himself to achieve a social victory,” said one resident. “Now they're talking about liberty and democracy, but we can't eat liberty and democracy. The people want bread to eat; they want work.”

Women’s rights threatened with rise of Salafists

The economic woes, some analysts worry, are fuelling the rise of a visibly hardline form of political Islam in a country known for its moderate Islamic practices.

Following the October 2011 elections which led to an Ennahda-led coalition, civil rights activists have warned that Salafist groups are endangering the revolution’s inclusive message.

One of the most vulnerable social groups are women, according to gender rights activists, who warn that the relative equality that Tunisian women enjoy in comparison with other Arab nations is being threatened.

“Many women have seen their rights jeopardised,” explained Ahlem Belhaj, president of the Tunisian Association for Democratic Women. “We heard about violent incidents because women were dressed in a certain way, or they went out a little too late. It's a step backwards.”

Banned under Ben Ali, Salafist groups are thriving in post-revolutionary Tunisia, increasing the divide in a once fairly homogenous, liberal corner of the Arab World.

Two years after a harassed fruit vendor set himself – and his country and his region – alight, Tunisians are still waiting to enjoy the fruits of his efforts.

Date created : 2012-12-17


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