The view from the ground.

Tunisia’s Forgotten Revolutionaries

Tunisia's revolution came quickly and suddenly, but there's still much work to be done in the underdeveloped and long-neglected birthplace of the Arab Spring.

Lauren E. Bohn
Lauren E. Bohn
Lauren E. Bohn

"Your time's up," alerts 25-year-old Ayman, competing for one of four computers in a dimly lit internet cafe in Regueb, a town in Tunisia's poor Sidi Bouzid governorate. He slaps Firaz, 18, and manages to draw him away from a football chatroom. "He spends too much time on there."

"Your time’s up," alerts 25-year-old Ayman, competing for one of four computers in a dimly lit internet cafe in Regueb, a town in Tunisia’s poor Sidi Bouzid governorate. He slaps Firaz, 18, and manages to draw him away from a football chatroom. "He spends too much time on there."

Ayman and Firaz deem themselves the "original" youth of a revolution that brought down Tunisia’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and sparked uprisings throughout the region, but not before rolling their eyes and listlessly smirking. Their daily stroll to a local café mirrors as a tour through one of Tunisia’s most restive revolutionary hubs, not far from the town of Sidi Bouzid where 26-year-old fruit vendor Mohammed Bouazzi set himself on fire in protest.

Since the heady moments in January when they used the internet cafe as an information command center, dispatching updates on Facebook about police brutality and deaths, they’ve been idling their days away on the backstreets of a ghost town. "There’s one word to describe life then and now: nothing," says Ayman, lighting his fourth cigarette of the hour. "Nothing to invest. No businesses. No land. Nothing." His words make up the refrain to Tunisia’s desperately undeveloped and long-neglected interior region, the birthplace of the Arab spring. What have the revolutionaries gotten out of their revolution?

Sidi Bouzid and the other cities of the south have not seen much from their role in the revolution. The neglect of the hinterlands is nothing new, of course. During Ben Ali’s 23-year rule, Tunisia focused 90 percent of its investment projects on the coastal regions, leaving the interior disproportionately underdeveloped. Unemployment in the region has increased to 18 percent, twice the rate on the coast, and while Tunisia’s average national poverty rate is 18 percent, it ranges from 6 percent in Tunis to more than 30 percent in the center-west governorates.

The southern cities have long been the epicenter of violent protest against the regime. Bread riots in December 1983 in the same cities launched the most serious challenge to the Tunisian regime. If things don’t improve, as seems grimly likely, rebellion may return. "Trust me, we will repeat the revolution here as soon as we can," Firaz declares, signing a petition to a Tunisian company to hire more youth from the town. "There’s no dignity. We are dead."

"Are we even a part of Tunisia?" asks farmer Mohammed Hidi Bin Saleh, pointing to the only road that leads in and out of a village in the poor governorate of Kasserine. When it rains, the road’s un-navigable and the children can’t get to school. "We don’t have faith in politics. Not before, not now. Just show us projects and development, no fancy ideas," he demands. "We’ll vote for the party of bread."

The problems of the transition are not limited to the south. Seven month’s after Tunisia’s uprisings, the greater political tableau is blurred, giving way to a rough-sketch mosaic of confusion, distrust, and apathy. The October elections, originally slated for June, but delayed to give parties more time to organize, will appoint an assembly to rewrite Tunisia’s constitution. The vacuum left by decades of autocratic rule is an uncertain space for a dizzying proliferation of political parties — around 90 — many lacking influential political bases or definitive programs.

Tunisians across the country worry that their leaderless and non-ideological revolution will be stolen by former Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) members in new clothes, or Islamists who’ve returned from exile. "The question isn’t even how to stop the RCD from coming back," says Zied Mhirsi, Tunisian doctor and co-founder of the English-language news site "Tunisia Live." "It’s how to limit their existence." He says the deposed party still make up the same faces and voices in the media, at dinner parties, and in the boardrooms.

"No one knows what’s going on here," says blogger-activist Bassem Bougeurra. "On the outside, it might look like we have our act together, but it’s a mess. We’re still fighting for basic human rights." Just two months ago, while using a mobile phone to film officers beating a cameraman at a demonstration, Bougeuerra says he was held and tortured for two hours in a police van. "We still don’t know who’s truly in charge," he says, donning a ‘No to censorship’ bracelet. "We have a government that’s led by an old man [85-year-old interim Prime Minister Beji Caid-Essebsi] and manipulated by hidden forces."

His girlfriend, prominent blogger-activist Emna Ben Jemaa, sits at the other end of the table, tracking what she says is dwindling news coverage and increasing disinterest in the country. "People think Tunisia is this romantic love story — a success story, the Facebook revolution," she says. "But we didn’t have a revolution. It’s only begun."

"You all think this came out of nowhere," says Tunisian General Trade Union (UGGT) activist Slim Rouissi. "That [Mohammed] Bouazizzi got mad one day and started it all. But we’ve been planning for a while." Locals and analysts alike say popular opposition had been growing the past two years, punctuated by strikes and protests throughout the region.

Rouissi claims that far from being a non-politicized symbol of frustration, the 26-year-old fruit vendor had participated in a "Day of the Land" protest in Sidi Bouzid last July in solidarity with consistent strikes across the region. "This is the region of revolution," Rouissi says, explaining how Ben Ali’s family ran Tunisia like a mafia state, controlling all the land and factories, and forcing locals out of jobs. "The fire is all around and it hasn’t been put out."

"Over the past 10 or more years in the region, there were streams that finally came together to form one big river of a revolution," says Chris Alexander, author of "Tunisia: Stability and Reform in the Modern Maghreb." In January 2008, the mining area of Gafsa was the epicenter of a popular uprising protesting massive layoffs by the Gafsa Phosphate Company. They cut the workforce from about 15,000 to 5,000 within a few months. But the uprising was swiftly and brutally suppressed and went unreported in state-controlled Tunisian media.

Back in 1984, Kasserine, a major industrial center 250 kilometers south of Tunis, saw youth taking to the streets as they had six months ago, demanding rollbacks in rising prices and better jobs. Gafsa later followed, with phosphate workers marching there and in the mining town of Metalaoui, where families recently clashed in a battle for jobs that left 11 dead and hundreds injured. Angry Tunisians did not need Facebook to spread the word, as riots and demonstrations spread across the whole country before being put down by force mixed with concessions on prices.

The 1984 upheavals ultimately led only to deeper authoritarian rule. Will this year’s be any different in the long run? It is difficult to find much hope among in the south. Four young men sitting in a cafe along Sidi Bouzid’s main road complain of widespread boredom, no transportation, and unemployment. "You came here to see the beginning?" asked Kareem Acher, a phosphate worker in Gafsa who’s been out of a job since September. "Well, we haven’t succeeded at anything yet."

Alexander says the main challenge during Tunisia’s transition is to continue to pull together constituencies that transcend class and regional distinctions, that will unite unemployed young people in the interior with professionals on the privileged coast-line, namely in Tunis. But thus far such linkages have not been formed. Zouheir Yahyaoui, a lawyer in Gafsa who defended workers back in 2008, warns that the revolution "is a picture of a confused person at the fork of six different roads. If problems stay in Gafsa, that will be the gauge of the new government’s success, of this revolution’s success."

Political parties are looking to the south as elections approach. The Islamist party El Nahda has made significant inroads. In Kairouan, 78 kilometers south of Tunis, long considered the Islamic cultural capital of Tunisia and Islam’s fourth holiest city, men sit across from the famous Uqaba mosque and rhapsodize about how so much, but so little has actually changed. Many talk about losing family and friends during Ben Ali’s El Nahda crackdown in the late 80s, early 90s. A few in the fray are former RCD members who’ve reintegrated into society, now throwing their support behind the revived Islamic party.

"When the city went into a state of strike after the revolution, there were no services," Mohammed Amar, a wood-cutter, recounts. "Who rented cars to clean streets and collect trash? Nahda. Who handed out information? Nahda. Who raised money for the poor and even for the people of the Libyan revolution? Nahda."

The banned movement played an almost non-existent role in the revolution, but since Ben Ali’s flight and the consequent January 30 return of exiled leader Rached Ghannouchi, al-Nahda has grown with astounding speed. They have sky-high, gleaming new headquarters in Tunis and offices in almost all the governorates. A recent survey found support for the party at just below 30 percent, almost three times that of its closest rival.

But they acknowledge they have some problems. "We’ve been gone for 30 years. A lot of us are old men," laughs Kamel Harbaoui, a press coordinator for the party. "But we’re not hurting. Our message is clear," he says, pointing to a group of thousands, many youth, who came to see Ghannouci speak in a Tunis suburb. "No other group can say what they stand for. And when you don’t stand for anything, you lose."

"Why are people scared of El Nahda? Look at me. I walk around with long hair and jeans," says 15-year-old Lina Ben Khalifa, one of several youth handing out candy at the rally. Her friend mans a table selling books and DVDs of Ghannouchi, all sold out by the end of the rally. "El Nahda is about justice, freedom, and democracy."

At a smaller rally in Hajeb l’Ajoun, 60 kilometers from Kairouan, pastries are served and floor-to-ceiling posters of Tunisian youth taking to the streets in protest garnish the lobby. "We’re not on the map for most companies and parties, this is a no man’s land," says Abdel Hakim Satlaoui, 32. "The high of revolution has worn off, but Nahda gives us hope." Before Ben Ali’s ouster, he said supporters would surreptitiously meet but were routinely followed and harassed.

In the poor Tunis suburb of Ettadhamen, an area trade unionists say was pivotal in the interior’s fight to involve Tunis in the first days of the revolution, residents remain unfazed. "El Nahda said they’d build a school here," said 45-year-old resident Nina Hadhari, buying watermelons from a vendor. "I don’t really like them or politics, but that’s good and there’s no one else here."

Some aren’t buying it. "They’re playing the sympathy card," says Kairouan carpet-store owner Ali Hamza. "They want everyone to feel bad for how much they suffered. They’re luring them in." Over the past months, Nahda leaders have routinely insisted they do not want to dominate the assembly and that they support democracy, and women’s rights. But many secularists are not willing to take Nahda’s word.

Throughout the interior, "No to El Nahda" tagging has surfaced on walls and buildings. El Nahda members and some politically inactive residents accuse liberal parties, like the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), for coming in busloads, tagging buildings and paying residents 20 dinars a day (about $14) to join the party.

But others don’t worry. Slim Bale, 60, flipping through a paper in downtown Tunis, calmly observes that "at the end of the day, Tunisians like short skirts and nice wine. El Nahda will never be successful here."

In Kasserine, one of the revolution’s main flash points, the PDP is trying to appeal to "the common country man." Lawyer and PDP member Mohammed Gharsalli shuffles through party membership applications at his office where images of Saddam Hussein and Gamal Nasser hang in almost every nook, evoking lost sentiments, he says, of Arab nationalism and anti-imperialism.

"We don’t have the connections to business owners or lifelines like the people in Sfax or Tunis do," he said. "The people here are disconnected and uninformed. And we’re competing day and night against El Nahda."

Gharsalli traveled outside of Kasserine to Shriya, a poor farming village to meet with the elders of families who decide how the area will vote. A string of villagers approached him, railing against the lack of development projects in the greater Kasserine region, isolation, and decades of neglect. For many liberals, that’s a challenge. "There is a big problem today for the liberal and secular revolutionaries to transition to political life," says Bougerra. "They know how to get people to protest in Tunis, but can’t mobilize and connect with the real Tunisian streets."

But outside of Sidi Bouizid, 10 men add to the chorus, slouched in white plastic chairs at Cafe El Saafsaf, watching a slow flow of Sunday traffic. Come October, they say they probably won’t vote. "We’re not listening to this noise of politics. Every day, sons wait for one dinar from their fathers to buy coffee," said 32-year-old farmer Mohammed Chaker. "That’s what happens here. This is the life, this is the revolution."

And on the only road between Sfax and Gafsa, 60-year-old Hend, whose white gloves are black from picking tomatoes in the field all day, says this is still the most crucial battleground. She leads a group of around 100 women who support their families by working the fields outside Macknassy, yet another town that’s witnessed sporadic protests during the past two years.

"We organized protests in January, but we work in the field for five dinars a day. And what now? A second revolution? Maybe," she says, as a gaggle of women stand in the back of a pick-up truck, waiting to go home. "We’re in the sun 10 hours a day…no time for the game of politics."

<p> Lauren E. Bohn is a Fulbright fellow and multimedia journalist based in Cairo. Follow her on Twitter at @LaurenBohn. </p>

More from Foreign Policy

Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.
Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.

At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment

Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.

How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China

As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.

What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal

Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.

A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.
A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.

Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust

Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.