Three years on, Tunisia uprising marked by muted protests

Tunisians mark the third anniversary of the self-immolation of a young street vendor that sparked the Arab Spring, but anti-government protests over lingering economic woes fail to draw large crowds.

Tunisian children wave the national flag as they gather to mark the third anniversary of the uprising that toppled deposed president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Mohamed Bouazizi Square. Fethi Belaid / AFP
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SIDI BOUZID, Tunisia // Tunisians marked the third anniversary on Tuesday of the self-immolation of a young street vendor that sparked the Arab Spring, but anti-government protests over lingering economic woes failed to draw large crowds.

About 1,000 unionists and left-wing opposition activists gathered in Sidi Bouzid, the impoverished town where Mohamed Bouazizi staged his protest on December 17, 2011, for a demonstration against the lack of progress since the revolution.

The demonstrators chanted slogans such as “Work is a right, band of thieves!” and “The revolution unified the people, the Troika has divided us!”, referring to the ruling coalition.

They gathered outside the regional governor’s headquarters, where Bouazizi set himself on fire in a desperate act of protest that led to the toppling of long-ruling strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and eventually ignited uprisings across the region.

Three years on, unemployment in Tunisia remains stuck at 15 per cent, with that figure rising to 24.4 per cent, the nation’s highest, in the Sidi Bouzid region, home to nearly half a million people.

With discontent at the government’s failure to improve living conditions in the marginalised region still running high, the Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki, outgoing prime minister Ali Larayedh and parliament speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar stayed away from planned ceremonies in Sidi Bouzid.

Mr Marzouki and Mr Ben Jaafar were heckled and pelted with stones at last year’s events.

“We have gained nothing from this revolution. I have friends in prison for drugs, others who have died trying to reach Italy illegally, and some who have died fighting in Syria,” said Bilel, a young protester from the poor Sidi Bouzid neighbourhood of Enoor.

A rival demonstration by supporters of the ruling Islamist party Ennahda drew about 300 people.

In the capital, events to mark three years since the uprising were equally muted.

Mr Marzouki and Mr Larayedh took part in a discreet ceremony at the presidential palace, according to photographs distributed by the presidency.

“We have the right to be proud of what we have achieved,” Mr Marzouki said in a speech published by his office.

He highlighted the “freedom of expression and opinion” among the revolution’s gains, and the fact that Tunisia had not succumbed to the violence plaguing other Arab Spring countries.

A planned protest outside the government’s headquarters in the Kasbah district called by Ansar Al Sharia, a banned Islamist group designated a “terrorist organisation” by the authorities, attracted only a few hundred people.

“We are here to confront the injustice and oppression of the marginalised. When Ben Ali was in power he called the Islamists terrorists to impose his dictatorship. The same scenario is repeating itself now,” said Marouane Jidda, one of the organisers.

Since the assassination in July of an opposition MP, Mohamed Brahmi, police have carried out multiple arrests aimed at weakening the secretive group, and banned their planned annual congress in the central city of Kairouan in May.

The authorities accuse Ansar Al Sharia of being behind the murder of Brahmi and Chokri Belaid, another leftist politician killed earlier this year, accusations denied by the group.

The murders plunged Tunisia into a deep political crisis which began to ease in October when the ruling Islamists and the mainly secular opposition struck a hard-won agreement to form an interim government of independents pending fresh elections.

And after months of wrangling, Tunisia’s political parties agreed on Saturday to choose the industry minister, Mehdi Jomaa, to head a government of independent figures tasked with organising elections next year.

Talks on the timetable and conditions for forming the new administration were due to begin today but have been pushed back to Friday, the powerful UGTT trade union, the main mediator in the negotiations, said.

The protracted crisis and resulting economic malaise have fuelled social discontent and led organisers of Tuesday’s events to insist the country’s leaders were not welcome in Sidi Bouzid.

Ennahda, which has led the coalition government since Tunisia held its first freely contested elections in October 2011, has been sharply criticised, notably for its failure to create jobs and to prevent a surge in Islamist violence.

* Agence France-Presse