By Kaouther Larbi / AFP
TUNIS: A year after they ousted a dictator and gave birth to the Arab Spring, Tunisians are still battling pressing social and economic problems but now under democratically elected rulers.
The once fearsome name of strongman Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali is now used almost dismissively as Tunisians breathe more easily since the lifting of the yoke of 23-years of iron-fisted rule.
In October, they voted en masse in historic national elections for an assembly now busy redrafting the constitution, and have managed to achieve relative stability, unlike several neighbors touched by the Arab uprisings.
But other problems remain in the form of raging unemployment and widespread social discontent.
“Ben Ali? He exited through the back door of history and the page has been turned. We now have to look at the future,” said Souha, a 48-year-old accountant, summarizing the general mood.
“Ben Ali was a trauma, a source of political disgust,” added Yadh Ben Achour, a jurist who helped outline post-revolution reforms.
“He is no longer a threat but when it comes to the entire system, a new chapter has yet to be opened.”
Ben Achour says the same issues that led to the overthrow of Ben Ali regime still exist today. And key among these is an unemployment rate of 19 percent nationally — up to 50 percent in certain inland areas overlooked for investment in the past.
Corruption also remains a challenge, with Transparency International downgrading the country from 59th to 73rd place out of 183 countries on its corruption list amid fears that former regime officials have blended into the new political landscape.
For many of the front-line protestors who sent their dictator scurrying into exile a year ago, the euphoria of revolution has made way for bitterness.
“I believed in a free and democratic Tunisia but I risked my life for nothing,” said Bechir Habachi, 21, who suffered a gunshot wound to the leg as police clamped down on the uprising that started in December 2010.
Ben Ali used his security forces to try to quash the revolt, but four weeks and 300 deaths later, he fled to Saudi Arabia with his wife on January 14.
The rare Arab case of people power in action tipped the first domino of
the so-called Arab Spring that also felled Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Moammer Qaddafi and inspired many around the world to challenge despotic rule.
While the country has emerged from the 23-year shadow of Ben Ali’s ruling clique and the repressive state apparatus he employed, many of the ousted Tunisian tyrant’s victims feel let down.
Recognition for the revolution’s heroes and martyrs’ families, redress for the old regime’s despoiled enemies and hope for the jobless youth who took to the streets in despair: nothing has been forthcoming, they say.
“There’s no dignity, no gratitude. I regret not staying at home to watch it all on TV, like most Tunisians did,” said Habachi.
The state has paid 10,000 euros ($12,700) to each bereaved family and around 1,500 euros ($1,900) to the 700 wounded but Lamia Farhani, who chairs a victims’ group, said the amount was “barely enough to pay for medical care.”
She complained that the new Islamist-led administration still hadn’t published a full list of the uprising’s victims.
“We cannot celebrate January 14 until all our rights are honored and until the government recognizes our heroes,” said Farhani, whose brother was shot dead on the eve of Ben Ali’s exit.
The revolution was sparked when 26-year-old fruit-seller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December. He died of his wounds on January 4.
The fact that several copycat self-immolation have taken place in recent days “speaks volumes about the depth of the people’s despair,” said economist Mahmoud Ben Romdhane.
When the newly installed President Moncef Marzouki and Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali travelled this year to Kasserine, one of the uprising’s frontline towns, they were heckled by the very youths whose struggle brought them to power.
The country’s top leaders will be out of the country when Tunisia marks the anniversary of Ben Ali’s flight on Saturday. No major events are planned and few appeared in a mood to celebrate.
Tunisia’s lack of democratic experience is showing and while nobody dares to regret the old regime, many are unimpressed by the performance of its former opposition.
“Ben Ali is gone but the rest of the lot are still around,” said a young sales executive in Tunis.