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Tunisia: The battle of Sidi Bouzid
Poor economic policies have led to widespread distress as Tunisia’s youth take their frustrations to the streets.
Last Modified: 27 Dec 2010 15:27 GMT
What happened to the state? Where did civil society go? Why is there only silence from Development Minister Mohamed Nouri Jouini?
Before even attempting to answer each one of those questions, these seemingly dysfunctional institutions need to be inspected more closely in order to see the extent to which they share responsibility for the suicidal protests of despair by Tunisia’s youth.
This is a not time for scoring political points. What Wikileaks says or does not say about Tunisia’s ruling familiy serves no purpose here. This is a time for reflection on Tunisia’s own ‘wretched of the earth’ – the ‘khobz-istes’ of Sidi Bouzid and the country’s disenfranchised youth.
The Khobz-istes (the jobless) strike back
Putting Rousseau’s notion of a ‘social contract’ and Arab politics in the same phrase is to ask for an oxymoron. Tunisia’s politics is no exception. But there is another type of contract which has nothing to do with Rousseau: The ‘bread contract’ – bread in parts of Tunisia and Egypt are called ‘eish, dear ‘life’ itself.
The tacit contract that has defined the North African country since its independence in 1956 is the ‘bread’ provision – mostly subsidies – in return for political deference. With modest resources, Tunisia has historically funded subsidies of strategic commodities – bread, sugar, tea, coffee, kerosene – and education, health, housing in some cases, and even recreational activities, such as sport.
The National Solidarity Fund and the National Employment Fund, still under centralised control, have had some successes. They have partly shifted the burden of providence from the state to society.
Tunisians dug into their pockets to volunteer what little of their non-disposable income they have to the cause of poverty alleviation, and improvements of the so-called ‘shadow zones’ (bidon-villes), the misery belt suffocating the rich towns and suburbs.
But even this system of quid pro quo bread and political deference has failed many Tunisians, leaving many hopeless and jobless.
Bou’azizi’s letter to President Bin Ali
It is a national tragedy when the youth – literally the future – commit suicide to make a point.
The despair must have been unimaginable when a university graduate, 26-year-old Mohamed Bou’azizi, was prevented from earning an honest living peddling fruits and vegetables. It is humiliating enough to do that.
He doused himself in petrol and set himself aflame on December 17. If he survives his horrific burns, he will now live with physical and emotional pain for the rest of his life.
Irrational as it might have been, it was a cry for help, and a message to his state and his president to act.
The police tend to intercept these cries for help, seemingly able to diagnose all the psychological damage done to tens of thousands of Bou’azizis with the prescription of a handy baton and a badge. But for the local authorities to confiscate his cart or stall is to add insult to injury.
Bou’azizi’s message was seconded by another suicidal signature of another young man in his mid-twenties, Lahseen Naji, who electrocuted himself in despair of ‘hunger and joblessness’. A third, Ramzi Al-Abboudi, under the burden of business debt, ironically made possible by the country’s micro-credit solidarity programme, killed himself.
Added to these signatures to Bou’azizi’s letter to Mr Bin Ali are the spontaneous riots of Sidi Bouzid and surrounding towns.
Tunisia’s long winter of discontent
Like many developing states, Tunisia jumped onto the ‘Washington consensus’ bandwagon, which led to fiscal, political and social adjustments.
This led to a decrease in subsidies, privatization, poor convertibility of the dinar, vast land sales with foreign ownership of real estate, tourist resort leasing, nouveaux riches consumption patterns, big business commissions, business monopolies and corruption.
Inevitably, the clouds gathering over the skies of Tunisia’s winter of discontent have started the tell-tale signs of a deluge of ills symptomatic of a quasi ‘banana republic’. …
‘North’ vs ‘South’
A stroll in the boulevards, leisure and sports centres, rich esplanades and shopping malls of the green coastal areas reveals a Tunisia that looks and feels like a land of geniality, of delight – in official propaganda parlance, a ‘model’ of development worthy of emulation.
The models of development and distribution applied to the country’s coastal and northern cities, towns and suburbs are nowhere to be seen in the centre or the south. The riots of Sidi Bouzid and surrounding towns call into question years of uneven development and mis-distribution.
They challenge policy-makers to rethink redistributive justice and regional development urgently. …
The Battle of Sidi Bouzid redux
In 1943 Sidi Bouzid was the theatre of another battle: a battle for freedom by the Allied forces against the Nazis.
Today it is the theatre of another battle. A battle for freedom from hunger.
Bou’azizi comes to mind when reading the words from Tunisia’s national anthem: ‘We die, we die, so that the homeland lives.’
Minister Jouini must contemplate the real and intended meaning of these words for the remainder of his tenure in the Ministry of Development (of under-development) in the areas he, his aides, and their predecessors have for so long neglected.
Lest graduate Bou’azizi and other marginals are forgotten, state and society must hold up a mirror to see whether the face of mis-distribution and uneven development today reflects an alien value of moral decay; ‘We live, we live, so that the homeland dies…’