Tunisia: Two Years After a Martyr’s Death, His Struggle Remains Unfinished

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FETHI BELAID / AFP / Getty Images

Sidi Bouzid residents shout slogans calling for Tunisia's President Moncef Marzouki to leave their town on Dec. 17, 2012

Mohamed Bouazizi was completely unknown outside of his small Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid on Dec. 17, 2010 — the day he lit the spark of an Arab rebellion that has brought down four Arab dictators in the two years since. After the 26-year-old produce vendor saw his wares confiscated by a local official who claimed he lacked the required paperwork to sell on the streets, he doused himself with gasoline in front of the local council office and set himself alight, dying of his burns three weeks later.

Bouazizi’s desperate self-immolation, a video of which was posted to Facebook, ignited a groundswell of fury among Tunisia’s youth, fueled by simmering resentment over a lack of jobs and prospects, and at the corruption and repression of the dictatorship of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. His death on Jan. 4 saw protests engulf the country, until, on Jan. 24, they drove out Ben Ali — the first Arab leader ever toppled by a popular uprising. Ben Ali’s fall inspired Egypt’s revolution three days later, and within weeks the uprising in Libya. There is now a Mohamed Bouazizi Square in Paris and a Bouazizi statue in Sidi Bouzid. And on Monday Tunisia released postage stamps of its tragic hero, under the slogan “Revolution of Dignity.”

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Two years after Bouazizi’s act of martyrdom, however, the quest for dignity is far from won — and it has unfolded on lines quite different from what Tunisians had expected.

Back in December 2010, many had believed that Tunisia’s revolutionary wave would drift westward to its neighbor Algeria, a vast, oil-rich country where President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 75, has ruled since 1999, under the watchful eye of the military that put him in power. In the days following Bouazizi’s death, at least five people were killed in Algeria in riots over rising food prices. And more than 20 Algerians set themselves on fire within weeks of Ben Ali’s downfall, in Bouazizi-style protests over miserable job prospects; four of them died of their burns. When elections last May returned the ruling National Liberation Front to power, an Islamist opposition politician dismissed the poll as “a piece of theater staged by the government.”

Yet despite some apparent disaffection from their political leaders, few Algerians appear ready to copy their neighbors in Tunisia, perhaps because the memories are still fresh of a brutal 10-year civil war that killed more than 150,000 and also because the oil-rich government has eased economic hardships through social programs.

The same cannot be said of Tunisia, however.

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In a poignant irony, Tunisians in still poor Sidi Bouzid — birthplace of the Arab Spring — heckled President Moncef Marzouki, a secular politician long jailed and then exiled under Ben Ali, when he traveled there to mark the second anniversary of Bouazizi’s self-immolation. “Dégage! Dégage!” they shouted, using the slogan (meaning “get out!”) of the revolt against Ben Ali. Protesters threw rocks at Marzouki and the parliamentary Speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar, according to Agence France-Presse. Appealing for calm, Marzouki told the crowd that a stable government would soon “heal the country’s problems,” and reminded Tunisians that “for the first time, we have a government which is not stealing from the people.”

But while elections in October 2011 brought to power Tunisia’s first democratic government, freedom has done little to address the economic grievances that drove the rebellion two years ago.

In late November, about 300 people were injured in a week of rioting over jobs in Siliana, another small town in Tunisia’s impoverished interior. And early this month, supporters of the ruling Islamist Ennahda party clashed with union activists, who were demanding the government’s resignation because of the lack of jobs.

As protests threatened to tip the rebellion’s inspiration into violence, the World Bank approved a $500 million loan to Tunisia, while the government deployed the military on the streets of Siliana to restore calm and stanch the anger. But two years after Bouazizi’s desperate act, few believe that the peace will last long.

MORE: Tunisia’s Islamist Victory: A Lesson for Egypt and Libya — or Not?