Exactly one year ago, on 17 December 2010, the 26-year old street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, as a statement against his hopeless situation and moreover an act of absolute desperation. The action incited many Tunisians in the interior regions to go into the streets to demonstrate against their unfavourable socioeconomic situation and the limited extent of freedom. The hard repression of the protests by the Ben Ali regime led, in the end, to a nation-wide supported revolution.
Celebrations in the City of Revolution
The first anniversary of the start of the revolution was celebrated in the city where everything started: Mohamed Bouazizi’s Sidi Bouzid. Enough reason for the EU Ambassador Adrianus Koetsenruijter to make a private visit to the interior regions. Accompanied by a group of 10 journalists, we took of to Sidi Bouzid, Sbeïtla and Kasserine, three cities where the revolution was fought hardest and where disturbances still take place every now and then. Sidi Bouzid was the setting for a music event and different street activities. The political leaders of the new political scene paid their respect to the people of the city of the revolution by appearing in public. Newly appointed President Moncef Marzouki did an attempt to speak to the many thousands of people who had come to the city’s main square. Because of the bad organization he was nevertheless not visible for the people and the pushing crowd prevented him from properly singing the national anthem.
The presence of many political leaders was – in line with good diplomatic tradition – a good opportunity to make some new contacts. The Ambassador spoke to several female parliamentary members of the Islamic party Ennahda and had a conversation with the future minister for Women Affairs.
A new government
After several weeks of debate, it finally became clear this week who will be leading the country in this period of transition. A short introduction into the so-called Troika:
The appointment of Marzouki to president of the Tunisian Republic is perhaps the most surprising outcome of the elections. Marzouki, until recently the leader of the nationalist leftish CPR was a long-time opponent of the former regime. Until the revolution he lived in exile in Paris, where he worked as a physician and professor of medicine.
With the appointment of party prominent Jebali as Prime Minister, the Islamic party Ennahda has managed to secure the most powerful position in the next government. The PM will be responsible for the formation of the government (expected end of this week) and decision making on sensitive issues.
Mustapha Ben Jaafar
Ben Jaafar, leader of the progressive Ettakatol and also a former fighter against the repressive regime of Ben Ali, has been elected President of the Constitutional Assembly. His main tasks are to set the agenda for the plenary meetings and coordinate the committees that write the constitution.
Changes fail to materialize and frustration
Our first destination on the second day of the visit was Sbeïtla, where the EU delegation had organized a small conference on microfinance. Many enterprising young people showed up at the event with the hope that the EU could provide them with concrete assistance to their projects. This however was not the case. The discussions with the youth showed that they are full of initiative; but that they lack the resources. The frustration about the lack of accompaniment and assistance is growing. One year after the revolution they are still unemployed, despite the good education that many enjoyed. The governor of Kasserine was equally firm in his arguments: nothing has changed and the disappointment is great.
Resuming the conversations with the youth and the governor, the interior regions of Tunisia are dealing with classic development issues: high unemployment, investments stay away and there is no immediate solution at hand. In addition, there are the Tunisia-specific circumstances, namely important unemployment rates among graduates and high expectations from the revolution and the recent elections. Frustration and social unrest are the result and the security forces can hardly keep the situation under control.
How can the EU help to break through the visual circle? A difficult issue without a clear answer. In Tunisia, the EU aims at fighting the structural causes of under-development. For example, the EU is funding a €50 million sustainable water management plan, to stimulate higher agriculture yields. Furthermore, the EU also contributes to bridge the gap between graduates’ skills and the labor market demands. Finally, microfinance projects are set up to stimulate small entrepreneurship.
To conclude… one year after the start of the revolution nothing much has changed for the residents of the poorest regions. Indeed, the socioeconomic position of many has even deteriorated. The big change comes from the fact that people can now openly discuss the problems at local, regional and national level and that a start has been made to solve the problems, in consultation with civil society actors.