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Five years on: The birthplace of the Arab Spring

Thibault Camus/AP/Press Association Images

Five years after Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, regular DG contributor Vidhi Doshi returned to the ‘birthplace of the Arab Spring’. Here, she reflects back on the visit – and on Tunisia’s ‘successful’ revolution.

“If it weren’t for the events of 17th December 2010, the small town of Sidi Bouzid in southern Tunisia would barely be worth mentioning. Five years ago, a fruit seller called Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire outside the local government building, notionally because of harassment by officials under Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s corrupt dictatorship. The act was captured on mobile phones and shared widely on Facebook and Twitter. It set off a ripple of protests throughout the Arab world, first in Tunisia, and then in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Saudi Arabia – almost every country in the Middle East felt the impact of Bouazizi’s act of defiance. In the West, an Arab awakening was heralded – at last, the Arab states were ready for democracy.

When I visited Sidi Bouzid in the weeks approaching the fifth anniversary of the revolution, the first thing I was shown was an independence memorial, built to remember those who died fighting French colonialists in Tunisia’s independence struggle. A local activist and school teacher, Nader, who was showing me around, stopped in front of the memorial. ‘There’s a symbolic link between the men who died fighting for independence and the 2011 revolutionaries,’ he said. ‘This town has always produced revolutionaries, it runs in our blood. The people of Sidi Bouzid are generous with their lives. They will always give them for a greater cause.’

In the main square, now named Place Bouazizi, a large photograph of the town’s hero hangs just across the street from the local police station. Though Bouazizi’s face has become a symbol of resistance across the Arab world, few of the copycat self-immolations had the same effect. In Algeria, Morocco and Saudi Arabia, protests that followed Tunisia’s example were met with stricter controls and repression. In Egypt and Libya, where old regimes were deposed, extremist political factions took power, leaving the countries in chaos. In Syria, a brutal civil war prompted an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Revisionist versions of the Arab Spring are cautious about using that optimistic title for the 2011 protests, describing the mayhem of that year as more riotous than revolutionary. Even in Tunisia, people question the narrative of a noble struggle for democracy. A Tunisian friend jokes ‘We used to call 2011 the year of free beer because so much alcohol was stolen from big shops and supermarkets.’

But five years on, Tunisia’s revolution is the only one that any commentators are willing to call a success. A new constitution, an elected government and a Nobel Prize-winning set of revolutionaries now represent a dim hope for democracy to prevail in the Arab world. But Tunisians themselves are less hopeful. 2015 saw the growing influence of ISIS in the country. Terrorist attacks at the Bardo museum in March, a beach resort in Sousse in June and finally the bombing of a presidential guard bus in the heart of the capital in November triggered the government to strengthen police control. Loosely worded anti-terror legislation was passed, which human rights activists claimed could be used against political opponents. In November, after the bus bombing, a state of emergency was declared and a 9pm curfew was imposed. In La Goulette, a suburb of Tunis, police broke down doors of residents in the middle of the night, and many reported waking up with guns pointed at their faces.

In recent weeks the controversial anti-marijuana Law 52 has been used to arrest human rights campaigners, artists and musicians. Many are beginning to have grave doubts about how democracy will fare in Tunisia. When I visited Sidi Bouzid, the birthplace of the revolution, a policeman tried to force my camera out of my hands outside the local government building, in the same spot that Mohamed Bouazizi had set himself on fire five years ago. Twice, I was taken to the police station and questioned simply for being a journalist. Tunisia is facing threats from an increasingly powerful state on the one hand, and Islamist extremism on the other. But today Sidi Bouzid’s people will rejoice. Street parties will commemorate Bouazizi’s death and the town will grieve for the fruit seller whose death marked a turning point in the history of their nation.”

For issue #19 of Delayed Gratification, Vidhi Doshi visited Port El Kantaoui, the Tunisian beach resort where 38 tourists lost their lives in a terror attack on 26th June. We interviewed her about her experience in the ghost resort town. Read the interview here.

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