Tunisia: “After the revolution, all my clients fled Sidi Bouzid”

Dn the cradle of the Tunisian revolution, the entrepreneur Khouloud Rhimi can now get involved and talk politics in the café with her friends. But, as at the time of the uprising of 2011, “there is no work in Sidi Bouzid”, she laments bitterly. This marginalized city in the center of the country, which then boiled down to a network of deteriorated streets lined with ragged shops and dilapidated public buildings, has become a symbol of the revolution.

As such, Sidi Bouzid has benefited from particular political attention: it now has a large municipal swimming pool, leisure places and trendy cafes with wi-fi where young girls and boys rub shoulders and can criticize the authorities without fear.

But if the revolution brought unprecedented freedom, it did not respond to the other demands of young people who took to the streets in 2011 to oust Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from power: work and dignity.

In the towns of the interior, unemployment remains two to three times higher than the 18% recorded nationally, in particular among young graduates. It is this same scourge of unemployment and police harassment that had pushed the traveling merchant Mohamed Bouazizi to the limit, to the point that he set himself on fire on December 17, 2010, in the main square of Sidi Bouzid.

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The structural problem of unemployment and inequalities

His act launched the protest in the marginalized interior of the country, a movement which then won Tunis and spread to the whole Arab world after the fall of Ben Ali on January 14, 2011.

Ten years have passed, and if Tunisia is hailed as the only country to have continued on the path of democratization, many inhabitants of Sidi Bouzid feel that their life is more difficult. “Many acquaintances have tried to go to Europe,” said Khouloud Rhimi, 25. “Some died at sea. Others set themselves on fire. There is no work, sometimes there is not even enough to buy food, ”she says.

This computer science graduate in 2015 did not wait for state aid to get started. But in an area where some jobs are paid 150 dinars (50 euros) per month, it took him four years to put aside enough to start his own business – a small restaurant. When she needed a small loan to complete her project, banks and micro-credit organizations rejected her. A sign that the region has not seen the improvements promised many times, the industrial zones of Sidi Bouzid remain almost deserted – the filling rate does not exceed 3%, according to Governor Anis Dhifallah.

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A complicated business environment

In addition to the reluctance of the banks, Rachid Fetini, local boss of the textile industry, denounces the lack of government strategy to fight against inequalities and patronage.

Rachid Fetini, who employed 500 workers before 2011, laments the rows of silent sewing machines in his empty factory. The coronavirus pandemic, which brought the Tunisian economy to its knees, sealed the fate of his affair. “After the revolution, all my clients fled Sidi Bouzid,” he explains, while he had supported the uprising. “They were afraid”, he regrets, criticizing the media coverage of this region presented as perpetually on strike, “which is not at all true”.

According to him, “there is a fratricidal fight between the political parties, suddenly even the local officials are blocked in their decisions”. “No one dares to sign a document without covering themselves politically… just in case. “Many projects are hampered” because certain lobbies do not wish to see this or that activity develop “, for fear of competition, he explains further.

A situation perfectly illustrated by Somaproc. Installed at the exit of Sidi Bouzid, at a strategic crossroads, it was to come to the aid of local farmers by hosting a wholesale market for vegetables and cattle, a slaughterhouse and a research center. To this day, it remains a wasteland. This project, which was to employ 1,200 people and improve the lives of 130,000 others, has obtained millions of euros in foreign aid, and enjoys the support of President Kaïs Saïed. In vain.

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Even state projects are blocked

Director Lotfi Hamdi points to a series of legal and administrative hurdles, describing the complex web of eight government agencies involved in the project. And the multiple intermediaries continue to reign supreme.

Are there still reasons to hope? If the broad social expectations were largely disappointed, the revolution nevertheless brought about changes, in particular by giving a little more political weight to the youth. The introduction of a compulsory quota of candidates under 36 has allowed them to enter municipal councils in large numbers. “Today, we can get involved in political parties, in society, in unions,” proclaims Hayet Amami, regional manager of the association of unemployed graduates.

By volunteering in an association against violence against women, Feyda Khaskhoussi, holder of a master’s degree in accounting, emphasizes having “acquired new skills to set up projects”. “I have something new to give to people, I don’t see myself as unemployed, even if what I do is not paid. But Khouloud Rhimi does not budge. “As far as I’m concerned, the revolution has brought me nothing. “

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