In cradle of Tunisia's uprising, much remains the same 10 years later

Life in Sidi Bouzid has not improved since a fruit seller Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire and began an uprising

Kais Bouazizi sits outside a cafe just metres away from the spot where, a decade ago, his cousin Mohamed's self-immolation became a catalyst for the Tunisian uprising and changed the Middle East.
"He was my neighbour and my friend. We were playing cards together just a week before he killed himself," he recalls. "He was a very simple man."
Mohamed's act in 2010 spoke directly to the legions of Tunisians mired in long-term joblessness, bruised by an oppressive police force and angry at a regime that they saw as openly corrupt. People like his cousin, Kais.
In the 10 years since Mohamed set himself on fire outside the municipal office in Sidi Bouzid in central Tunisia, the country has changed dramatically.
The old system fell and a new democracy is taking root, albeit slowly and with its own set of challenges – a technocratic government in office since September has yet to pass a single piece of legislation.
There have also been major security challenges.
Tunisia was the first country in the 2011 Arab uprisings and thousands of young men left the country in the months and years after to join battlefields in Syria and Iraq. Several extremist attacks hit the country's crucial tourism sector hard.

As living standards continue to decline, a generation has left in search of a future in Europe. All the while, the root causes of the mass protests of 2011 have festered and grown.

The aspiration of the revolution to finally bridge the gap between the more comfortable coastal regions and the hardscrabble interior has not been met.
Kais recalled the story of a girl from the comfortable coastal city of Monastir that he had wanted to marry before the revolution.

"Her parents refused, just because I was from Sidi Bouzid,” he said. “Once that happened, I came back here and stayed home for a month. Once the revolution came, I poured all my anger into that."

Before the pandemic struck this year, unemployment across the country averaged 16 per cent. In some interior towns like Sidi Bouzid, the number is doubled.

To Kais, there remain places that are for the status quo and those that are against it. Sidi Bouzid, he says, is still firmly in the camp seeking change.

Stabbing the air with his finger, Kais explains his own run-ins with the government since becoming politicised by the events of 2010 and 2011. He spoke of his numerous arrests and the various summons he has received to police stations since his appetite for politics led him into opposition to parties of every stripe since the revolution.

Today, residents of Sidi Bouzid tussle with a conflicted legacy of their role as the cradle of the revolution.

The uprising fixed the town in the consciousness of successive governments, with their nervousness over future dissent visible in the development of the area. Cafes have been freshly painted and new developments, such as a municipal sports centre and an agricultural training centre, have been built.

Imen Aziz was one of the few who eventually found work in the boom of new buildings in the town, getting a job at one of the new leisure facilities. But recent changes to the employment criteria mean she is now worrying for her position.

"After the revolution, the government created jobs for the people here," she says. "But they weren't sustainable."

Many of the jobs were intended to support the young and the vulnerable, she explains. However, a recent government reversal has capped the scheme to those aged under 45. Imen, now 46, will hear her fate in February.

She does not know what she will do after if the decision go against her.

'Things are getting harder'

Mohammed's memory and the town are now intertwined – the main thoroughfare bears his name, while a giant mural of the former fruit seller stares out from the side of a multi-storeyed building onto the barracks opposite. A monument erected in his honour sits outside the Museum of the Revolution, which is no longer open to visitors.
But life continues to get harder for many.
Day labourer Ghazi Oumi, 38, relies on casual work in agriculture or construction to get by.
"Life was better before the revolution," he says. "The cost of living has gone up and there are more unemployed people," he says. "I have seven daughters, the oldest is 20, and none have jobs. Everything I earn goes on food. We have no savings."
It is a viewpoint echoed by 43-year-old Saber Bakkoui, who rents a kiosk in the town centre selling newspapers. "Freedom is important" he says. "But improving people's standard of living is better." Today, he explains, many items – such as cylinders of cooking gas – are too expensive and are scarce.
Mr Bakkoui was previously employed as a casual worker in the area's agricultural sector. "My living conditions were better then," he says.
Many of the structural problems that first led to a revolution remain unresolved a decade on. This is clear in Sidi Bouzid – a sprawling lot earmarked for Somaproc, an initiative designed to employ 1,200 people and overhaul agriculture across the region, remains empty.
The three protest demands of employment, freedom and dignity are still absent.
Mokhtar Dhifi, 50, prepares hot sandwiches on a makeshift stand on the road out of town.
He once owned a restaurant, but cannot afford staff salaries because of the downturn that followed the revolution.
"Life is very difficult," he says plainly. "I am not hopeful for my children. Things are getting worse – it gets harder every year."