In birthplace of Arab uprising, discontent lingers

The Associated Press
Saturday, March 12, 2011; 5:43 AM

SIDI BOUZID, Tunisia -- From this sleepy town in Tunisia, revolution swept across the Arab world. But while one man's act of defiance and despair has transformed the Middle East, it has changed little in his hometown.

Residents of Sidi Bouzid can now express their anger more freely. But they're still clamoring for jobs and rail against the official chicanery that drove a local fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, to set himself on fire on Dec. 17.

The desperate act by the high-school dropout set off mass protests that brought down President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in less than a month. The revolt inspired others who toppled autocratic Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, launched an armed rebellion against Libyan despot Moammar Gadhafi, and rattled governments in Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere.

The protests have common roots: anger against official corruption and political oppression, a "youth bulge" that means economies can't grow fast enough to provide jobs for all, and growing expectations of a better life as a result of improved education and widespread Internet and satellite TV access.

In Sidi Bouzid, a town of about 70,000 people and the provincial capital of a district of about 410,000 people in the Tunisia's central plain, disillusionment has largely replaced the euphoria of the uprising.

Unemployed young men spend their days playing cards in coffee shops, dreaming of sneaking into Europe. Since the overthrow of Ben Ali, thousands of Tunisians have attempted the dangerous trip across the choppy Mediterranean in old fishing boats.

Other job seekers throng the local governor's office, just yards from where the 26-year-old Bouazizi turned himself into a human torch, to try to press crumpled CVs and college diplomas into the hands of officials across coils of barbed wire. Officials say they had to barricade the compound because they fear angry crowds might try to break in.

But for those waiting outside the gates - some come every day and try for hours to get someone's attention - the barriers signal that those in charge now are as inaccessible as their predecessors.

"I don't understand why the governor can't open the door," said jobseeker Kamal Hamdi, 38, who holds a degree in economics, but has been forced to work as a waiter for the past 11 years because there are no jobs in his field.

"Since the revolution, nothing has changed," said Hamdi, a father of three. "We threw out Ben Ali, that's all."

Unemployment is perhaps most demoralizing for the young men who spearheaded the street protests after Bouazizi's self-immolation and now find themselves back in the coffee shops, smoking and talking about ways to get to Europe.

One of them is Ali Chouaibi, 22, who earns a little spending money with odd jobs, such as fixing antennas. "We think that work is dignity. We are people without dignity," said Chouaibi. "I want to live a normal life ... to marry the woman I love, because without money, you can't marry."

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