Ten years ago, Kais Bouazizi and Tawfik Abidi sat in a cafe in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid to draft a platform for their new political party, The Scales, as they campaigned for seats in the constituent assembly that would write the country’s new constitution.
Unlikely politicians, Mr Bouazizi and Mr Abidi had spent the previous winter battling with police and security forces on the streets of the city after Mr Bouazizi’s cousin, Mohamed, set himself on fire after being harassed by police. The protests that followed his death in 2010 soon burst into the capital and swept Tunisia’s long-time dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, from power.
“It’s always the margins that start a revolution, not the centre,” Mr Bouazizi said, "but the centre gets the lion’s share of the rewards we earned with our sweat and blood on the streets.”
The Scales, whose name was a nod to both the scales of justice and the fruit scales police confiscated from Mohamed Bouazizi before his death, wanted to upend that equation.
They envisioned a federal system in which Tunisia’s impoverished interior region would have more political autonomy and control over local resources. For too long, towns such as Sidi Bouzid had been forgotten by the government, with the roads crumbling and young people facing unemployment. The party wanted to provide what the interior had been calling for from the first day of the uprising – work, freedom and dignity.
Outspent in the campaign by a media mogul and the well-funded Ennahda party, neither Mr Bouazizi nor Mr Abidi were elected to the constituent assembly. In the decade since, Tunisia has been through 10 governments, nearly 150 ministers and countless political scandals.
Now, President Kais Saied, himself a figure from the margins who campaigned on decentralising power, has taken the drastic step to consolidate the whole of government in the presidency in what he says is a course correction for the revolution.
The National travelled to Sidi Bouzid last week to understand how those whose sweat and blood seeded that uprising view the current political climate, and what they hope to gain, or fear to lose, in the transition.
A time of ambiguity or a new flame of hope?
Sitting in another cafe in Sidi Bouzid, Mr Bouazizi and Mr Abidi, who both backed Mr Saied in the 2019 election, are at odds over his move.
“July 25th was the necessary result of 10 years of failure,” Mr Bouazizi said. He rattled off a list of the successive governments and their missteps, right through to prime minister Hichem Mechichi taking a beach holiday in the midst of the pandemic.
“I watched my mother sick with Covid, gasping for breath because we couldn’t find an oxygen bottle, meanwhile these clowns in parliament are slapping each other," Mr Bouazizi said.
He said Mr Saied’s move to freeze parliament, and, he believed, ultimately remove it, would help to decentralise power and put it back in the hands of the people.
But Mr Abidi fears Mr Saied has overstepped his bounds. “I feel like Tunisia is headed for a time of real ambiguity,” he said.
“We were the first Arab nation with a constitution and we need to honour that. We need people who act within the law. Saied could have taken a bold step but done it within the parameters of the law, and he could have rallied even more support if he’d done that.”
Their friend and fellow activist, Anwar Jawedi, is also concerned the unilateral move could cost Mr Saied, and the country, dearly.
“What happened was a good step but there’s a worry that we’ll backslide towards authoritarianism,” Mr Jawedi said.
“Saied cannot do this on his own, he needs a reliable team.”
He said he was waiting for Mr Saied to appoint a prime minister and put forward a plan to lead the country out of the crisis, one that includes the voices of different parties and civil society organisations.
“True leadership is being able to work with others to get a result. If he can’t do that, well that’s just dictatorship,” Mr Jawedi said.
All three are holding out hope that Mr Saied will deliver, even if it takes time, and they know precisely what initial success will look like: prosecuting corrupt MPs and businessmen, protecting the symbols of the revolution, and building a long-promised hospital in Sidi Bouzid.
Looking for stability
Lofty goals such as tackling corruption sound appealing, but Wahid Affi, 43, said Mr Saied's priority should be helping under-employed people in places like Sidi Bouzid.
After graduating with a degree in electrical engineering in 2001, Mr Affi said he spent years looking for a full-time position but never managed to find a job in his field, a perpetual problem for educated young people in Tunisia.
“Kais Saied seemed like a new flame of hope for the youth, but I think they’ve grown disillusioned,” he said while taking a break from his part-time job as a cashier.
Shortly after his election, Mr Saied backed a bill that would give jobs to unemployed people in marginalised areas, injecting the interior with hopes for economic traction. But Mr Affi said the initiative was riddled with corruption and nepotism, only benefiting those with political connections and leaving thousands of people like him disappointed.
“So when Saied made his decision on the 25th, I think a lot of people were surprised that he finally took a bold step, but they’re still unsure if he’ll be able to deliver," he said.
“It was a sweet coup,” said Abdellatif, Mr Affi’s employer, who said the previous government had "left us with zero".
"But we have to be so, so careful. Saied has everything – our freedom of speech, everything we worked to gain in the revolution – in his hands.”
The initial rush of excitement after Mr Saied’s announcement has dimmed, but Mr Affi said he still thought Tunisia was on a “divine path” towards success, and hoped to enjoy a sliver of the spoils.
“I’m not looking for a lot, just some stability. Material, maybe even romantic stability," he said.