The Ben Ali regime has been gone for almost a year, but many Tunisians have yet to reap the benefits of “their” revolution. In Gafsa, one of the country’s poorest regions, some say mounting discontent could soon lead to a second upheaval.
Tunisia is preparing to mark one year since the fall of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali on January 14. But the looming anniversary carries a bitter taste for the people of Gafsa, a resource-rich yet impoverished region in the country’s southwest.
On Thursday, January 5, a man doused his clothes in petrol and set himself alight in front of the Gafsa government building, where he and scores of other job seekers had been protesting for several days against rising unemployment and government inaction.
Ammar Gharsalla, a 48-year-old father of three, had asked to meet a ministerial delegation that was visiting the mining region, which has been rocked by widespread social unrest in recent months.
A barren spring
Gharsalla was rushed to a hospital near Tunis in a critical state. Soon after his desperate act, scuffles broke out between security forces and hundreds of Gafsa youths. While the unrest had died down by Friday, Ammar Amroussia, a local human rights activist and a spokesperson for the Workers’ Communist Party of Tunisia (PCOT), told FRANCE 24 that “things could get out of hand if Ammar Gharsalla dies”.
The events in Gafsa were eerily reminiscent of a similar incident just over a year ago in the small town of Sidi Bouzid, where the self-immolation of a fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi kicked off the spectacular chain of events that led to the successive falls of three Arab dictators.
For the people of Gafsa, long a stronghold of trade unionism, the Arab world’s celebrated spring has failed to bear fruit. “The people here say the revolution was merely a slogan, because nothing has been done to change things, despite the many campaign promises,” said Amroussia.
In fact matters have got worse, with the recent political instability and the global economic slowdown combining to heighten Gafsa’s woes. “Since the fall of Ben Ali, not a single step has been taken to stem the sharp rise in prices, particularly for bread and medicine, nor to reduce regional inequalities and promote jobs,” said the left-wing activist.
‘There will be a second revolution’
Such is the resentment in Gafsa that the protest movement “could soon escalate if the government fails to act decisively”, said a local lawyer who wished to remain anonymous.
The recent visit by the ministers for industry, for employment and for social affairs hardly allayed the concern about government inaction.
“Expectation is immense and people are on edge,” Social Affairs Minister Khalil Zaouia told AFP at the end of the visit, hours after Gharsalla set himself alight. “This was a first contact, we are sorry it had to end in such a dramatic fashion.”
Zaouia pleaded for the establishment of a special task force, with representatives from five different ministries, who will be tasked with addressing local demands.
“The ministers’ visit was a good thing, but they came only to listen to the people, whereas the people were looking for concrete solutions to their problems – hence the fiasco,” said Amroussia, before warning: “Ben Ali may have fallen, but his system is still in place; and if things carry on this way, there will be a second revolution.”