Approximately a year after the outbreak of Tunisia’s revolution, the proliferation of graffiti with slogans such as “Live free or die trying,” “Don’t give up,” and “Stand up for your rights” are poignant reminders of the struggle Tunisians embarked upon last December and January. Although Tunisians succeeded in ousting Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, most citizens’ expectations of improved livelihoods have yet to be fulfilled. This reality is most evident in the country’s south, where unemployment, poor social services, and the absence of basic amenities remain widespread. Disaffection in the Tunisian south, which includes towns such as Sidi Bouzid, Metlaoui, and Kasserine, has been further fueled by political and media neglect. For example, a multiple suicide attempt on 16 September 2011—in which five Kasserine residents attempted to hang themselves to protest unfair hiring practices and the broader issue of unemployment—received little media coverage or political interest.
In the marginalized southern areas, the living conditions themselves continue to oppress even in the absence of a repressive dictator. For many locals, the only solution to their insufferable situation—aside from a second revolution—lay in the outcome of the 23 October Constituent Assembly elections, in which Tunisians elected their own leaders for the first time in the country’s history. The elected delegates comprise Tunisia’s temporary Constituent Assembly, a body tasked with drafting a new constitution and appointing a new transitional government—thereby essentially setting the framework for the country’s future.
The Constituent Assembly elections thus represented a watershed for ordinary citizens accustomed to having their voices silenced. But when the opportunity to finally speak arrived, who would listen? What would be the political repercussions when, after decades of marginalization, citizens’ opinions were finally vocalized? On the one hand, the outcome of Tunisia’s elections and the post-electoral period have indicated that political parties can garner widespread support through an attentiveness to the living conditions of Tunisia’s more impoverished regions. At the same time, post-electoral events have also revealed that the disconnect between the isolated halls of Tunisian politics and the reality on the ground has not yet subsided.
Revolutionary Expectations Unfulfilled
In December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi brought the world’s attention to Sidi Bouzid when he set himself aflame to protest the marginalization of his region by the Tunisian government and the unsupportable living conditions there. One year and one revolution later, life in Sidi Bouzid has changed very little. With an unemployment rate of over forty percent—compared to the sixteen percent that characterizes the northern coastal regions of Tunisia—Sidi Bouzid’s poverty persists as a debilitating problem for its inhabitants. Infrastructure remains undeveloped, and many areas of the governorate continue to lack basic services such as electricity and running water. There is no university in the region—ambitious students must journey to the coastal regions of the country to continue their education—and despite post-revolution promises, there are no plans to build one. Moreover, the area’s poor security is reflected in the frequent altercations between feuding local tribes, a phenomenon also found in neighboring governorates such as Sbeitla.
Other southern governorates of Tunisia are no different. Despite post-revolution expectations, the governorate of Metlaoui—located between Gafsa and Tozeur in southwestern Tunisia—currently resembles a ghost town: almost every building on both sides of the main road is currently boarded up. The infrastructure of Metlaoui is no better than that of Sidi Bouzid: its “park” is actually no more than five hundred meters of land surrounded by a severely damaged wall with a couple of dying trees inside, and with no sanitation system, residents have resorted to converting used oil canisters into garbage cans. Foreign and local investment is also lacking: the Samosan factory, whose construction began over a year ago, lies unfinished and neglected among the piles of trash and other residue that litter Metlaoui’s desert backdrop.
One need only venture to Metlaoui’s sole hospital to witness its marginalization and the subsequent deprivation of its citizens. Lack of medicine, outdated equipment, and a non-sterile environment result in countless deaths each year. The walls of the “isolation” rooms reserved for patients with serious illnesses are lined with rust and mold. The hallways of the birthing ward are entirely without light. Soap dispensers for doctors and nurses lack soap. Surgeons’ masks and robes lie on the ground soaked in blood. Numerous dead cockroaches can be found under the hospital’s sinks. The hospital is also short of equipment and drugs to deal with more serious cases: oxygen is a commodity in short supply, and the hospital’s sole defibrillator is only usable if a patient is propped up on the ground.
The region’s sole slaughterhouse presents another set of pressing sanitary problems. When its rusty doors are opened, one is greeted with swarms of flies and an almost unbearable smell of rotting meat. Piles of leftover animal skins litter the building’s floor, and drops of blood pepper its walls and floors. Outside of the building, tufts of animal fur are scattered among patches of grass, and the bones of recently slaughtered livestock are difficult to avoid.
It is in this context of unfulfilled expectations that inhabitants of Tunisia’s southern region ventured to the ballot boxes on 23 October. Disappointed with the outcome of a revolution that first erupted in their own region, it is little wonder that the most prevalent demands from inhabitants of Tunisia’s south were for change and for increased attentiveness to local needs.
What Hamdi Revealed
During the electoral campaign, once Tunisian politicians realized the mass electoral power that the southern regions of their country could yield, many turned their attention to these areas. But a politician named Hechmi Hamdi had already been playing the “Southern Card” for some time, and his party, al-Aridha Chaabia [the Popular Petition], reaped the benefits. This previously unknown party won twenty-six out of a possible 219 seats in the Constituent Assembly, placing al-Aridha in third place behind Ennahda and the Congress for the Republic Party (CPR). Al-Aridha performed particularly well in the southern districts, such as Sidi Bouzid, Gafsa, Kebili, and Tataouine.
Much of al-Aridha’s popularity in Sidi Bouzid can be attributed to the fact that it is Hamdi’s birthplace. Although he had lived most of his adult life in London, Hamdi grew up in Sidi Bouzid and so can be considered a weld al-balad (a “local”). Hamdi’s regional origins led many of the governorate’s inhabitants to identify with him more directly than with other candidates, particularly since Tunisia’s leaders have historically hailed from the sahil [the coast]—Tunisia’s more wealthy region—as opposed to the inner and southern regions of the country.
What is more, it appears that this “local” status reaches beyond Hamdi’s district of origin, extending to neighboring areas as well. According to Rawia, an al-Aridha supporter from Tunis: “The South has this complex….All of Tunisia’s presidents were from the coast, so [southerners] want someone from the South to rule.” Alluding to the fact that Tunisians from the South use a “g” sound rather than the “q” sound that is used everywhere else in the country, Rawia added that Hamdi “was speaking their language—literally.” Understandably, after decades of being sidelined from political life, Rawia and other southerners sought to lessen the gap between the ruler and the ruled in Tunisia. They saw in Hamdi a compatriot with the potential to do so.
If Hamdi literally “spoke the language of the people,” he did so figuratively as well. While living in London, Hamdi founded two television channels: the Independent TV Channel, Moustaqila (founded in 1999), and the Democratic Channel (founded in 2005). On his talk show Hiwarat Tounisiya (“Tunisian Discussions”), Hamdi fields a variety of comments and personal requests from ordinary Tunisian citizens. For example, during one episode, a caller requested that Hamdi take action to reduce her husband’s jail sentence. Thus, Hamdi not only targeted a previously overlooked section of Tunisian society—and well before other Tunisian politicians had woken up to the significance of the region—he also used an appropriate tool to do so: a dialogue broadcast across the television screens of scores of local Tunisians.
In addition to Hamdi’s personality and background, al-Aridha also appealed to disenfranchised and impoverished voters through a populist program focusing on the most basic and urgent needs of the population. As Hamdi stated in an interview, “[The political elite] are unaware of the hard life of marginalized Tunisians, especially in Sidi Bouzid and in the Hawamed area where I come from. Society has the moral obligation to collectively pay for the poor and the needy.” To this end, the economic and social platform of al-Aridha’s program includes universal health care, unemployment benefits of two hundred dinars for each jobless citizen, free transportation for anyone over the age of sixty-five, and “charity boxes” (“inspired from the Quran and the Prophet Mohamed’s teachings,” according to Hamdi) for those who have been treated unjustly. Hamdi plans to finance these bold programs by taxing the travel industry and individuals earning more than 100,000 dinars, with a focus on the “big companies of the Ben Ali era.”
While these grandiose plans may not be realistic, al-Aridha’s striking and unexpected popularity reveals the fact that many of Tunisia’s political parties had failed to address the needs of Tunisia’s poorest and most marginalized inhabitants—who were, in many respects, the true instigators of Tunisia’s revolution. “Al-Aridha represents what people revolted for and their aspirations for dignity,” as Hamdi put it. Moreover, the party’s success sheds light on the influence wielded by previously sidelined citizens in Tunisia’s fledgling democratic process, and the enormous political gains that can be made by addressing their demands. But as subsequent events revealed, many politicians and media officials have not yet learned how to do so appropriately.
“A Campaign Against the Region”
At a press conference held on 27 October, when the complete results of the elections were announced, the Tunisian electoral commission (ISIE) announced the dismissal of several of al-Aridha’s lists due to what ISIE described as infractions of the electoral law. Several of the party’s lists from the districts of Tataouine, Sfax 1, Jendouba, Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid, and France 2 were dismissed, causing the party to lose a total of eight seats.
During the press conference—which was broadcast on national television—ISIE’s announcement elicited raucous cheers and an enthusiastic rendering of the Tunisian national anthem from the crowd of journalists present at the ISIE Media Center—a symbolic gesture whose significance was surely not lost on the thousands of Tunisians who had cast their votes for al-Aridha. Furthermore, not long after the press conference, Hamadi Jebali, the Secretary General of Ennahda and the party’s candidate for Prime Minister, gave a statement to Tunisia’s Hanibal television station denigrating al-Aridha supporters and questioning the mental state of individuals who voted for al-Aridha.
That same night, ISIE’s decision to drop the al-Aridha lists—along with Hamdi’s subsequent Mosaique interview, in which he urged the rest of his heads of lists to resign—spurred violent protests in Sidi Bouzid, one of the districts where al-Aridha’s lists had been dismissed by ISIE. The fact that Sidi Bouzid is Hamidi’s own hometown made ISIE’s decision substantially more personal for its residents. Indeed, the affair took on a geographic and class dimension, since many of Sidi Bouzid’s residents regarded the rejection of Hamidi and the al-Aridha lists as a wider rejection of the town (and region) itself.
As part of their protest, Sidi Bouzid residents burned a local office affiliated with Ennahda, part of the Mayor’s building, and the local municipality building. Protests continued into the following day and extended to neighboring areas, such as Meknessi, Menzel Bouzayene, Regab, and even to Sfax. Many of those protesting asserted that their actions were in response to “a campaign against the region,” which they saw as led by the media. Residents felt that their judgment was being ridiculed by the media and politicians alike. In fact, in a video of the protests that circulated on Facebook, the crowd’s chant of “You can’t insult the people of Sidi Bouzid” echoes throughout.
The flames engulfing Sidi Bouzid`s City Hall, National Guard, and court buildings on 27 and 28 October were a reminder of the flames that surrounded Mohamed Bouazizi`s body on 17 December 2010—in almost the same exact location. Both fires were ignited by feelings of indignity and estrangement. A fitting question, then, is: What has changed? Jebali`s mocking statements and ISIE`s rapid investigation into al-Aridha`s electoral activities (several other parties were also accused of elections violations, yet none received the swift dismissal of their lists that al-Aridha faced) suggest that the answer may be “not much”—at least until Tunisia`s new politicians and media figures learn from recent Tunisian history and begin to address these enduring feelings of marginalization and derision.