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Monday 24 October 2011

Kasserine: Broken Hopes of a Tunisian Town

Kasserine: Broken Hopes of a Tunisian Town
By: Alexandra Sandels
Published Friday, October 21, 2011

Ahead of Tunisia's much-touted elections this Sunday, the youth of Tunisia's central town of Kasserine who took part in the uprising tell stories of disillusionment with the little change the revolution has brought them so far.

KASSERINE, TUNISIA � In a DVD shop in Kasserine, a marginalized and neglected town in central Tunisia around 60km west of Sidi Bouzid, 20-year-old unemployed Noorhan and his friends sit around smoking cigarettes and streaming videos. They are disenchanted with the post-revolt period. Little, they say, has changed since the outbreak of the uprising and little is likely to change after upcoming elections this Sunday.

"All the people were killed here for freedom and work," said Noorhan. "But nothing changed for this town."

Noorhan recently returned to Kasserine. He had lost his job as a server in the tourist hot-spot island of Djerba off Tunisia's coast. Most of the other young men in the shop, several of whom say they participated in the uprising, shake their heads when asked if they have jobs. A deep sense of frustration prevails among them over what they see as the slow path to meaningful change in the new Tunisia.

Noorhan has no hope of finding a job in Kasserine and would rather go to another city in Tunisia. Or France or Italy.

"I sit in the coffee shop and say `God just give me a job,'" he said. "Here in Kasserine you graduate [from university] but you don't get a job."

During the January revolt, the town was one of the first to rise up. Police responded violently to the protests, resulting in the killing of dozens of people.

One of Noorhan's friends starts streaming a video showing violent clashes between demonstrators and police in Kasserine during the January uprising and bloodied protesters being carried away. Outside the DVD shop, a monument with the names of the killed protesters has been erected. Walls are painted with graffiti slogans hailing the 'martyrs' of the uprising.

Most of those who are hanging out in the DVD shop say they don't have trust in any of the political parties or independent candidates running in the election and will therefore not vote. They say they want to see more tangible changes � more jobs being created, more economic development, and better infrastructure in their city.

"No, I'm not voting. We refuse the elections. Here no one likes the election," said Noorhan.

Bashir Bedoui, the new governor of Kasserine who took office earlier this fall after popular protests pushed out the former governor, admits there is a lot to do to put Kasserine back on track and that it is a task that won't be completed overnight.

"There are a lot of problems," he said. "This is the most poor region in the country. It's a region that was neglected for decades, but it has potential. Yet there are no miracle solutions."

Several investors, he says, have recently visited Kasserine to explore potential future projects, but better infrastructure is desperately needed.

Meanwhile, to calm the town's frustrated masses of unemployed youth, the government has put several thousands Kasserine youth on so-called Hadira, a kind of community service program under which each person enrolled is paid the equivalent of around US$140 a month.

The initiative appears to have been met with mixed reactions from local residents. Outside the governor's office, Saed Sadouk � an unemployed French teacher in his thirties and one of the participants in a sit-in against unemployment � is waiting to lobby his case with the local authorities.

More real jobs are needed now, in his opinion, as opposed to expanding the Hadira program. For the past month, Sadouk and around 10 other teachers have been holding a sit-in at the offices of the education commission in Kasserine. They say they have been rejected from jobs by the government because it says they are underqualified. Some of them are currently on a hunger strike.

"We've been there for the past 36 days," said Sadouk. "We sleep there, we eat there. We felt that we weren't granted our right."

At the sit-in headquarters, located near a school, mattresses are neatly placed along a wall where the striking teachers sleep.

Outside the sit-in, meanwhile, a wall remains a chilling reminder of a day in September when Sadouk and four other desperate striking teachers attempted public suicide. By tying blue cords around their necks to an iron pipe and placing themselves on the high wall surrounding the education commission, they threatened collective suicide if they weren't given jobs. They were taken to a local hospital for treatment.

"We were five who attempted it," said Sadouk. "We felt as if life was over. We didn't find anything � no source of income. It's the workers who did the revolution but the politicians took the fruits of the revolution." Just like the group of unemployed young men at the DVD shop, Sadouk says he is not planning to vote on Sunday. Why cast a ballot if one can't even provide for oneself and one's family, he argues. "As long as I'm hungry I'm not going to vote. This revolution is no longer a revolution about democracy and political parties � it's about the mere dignity of the family. Up until now, we feel as if nothing has changed. So why vote?"

But not everyone is as disillusioned with the election as Sadouk is. At the local university several students say they will vote and that they are relatively hopeful about the country's future. When they talk about who they will be voting for, a wide array of parties are mentioned including the Islamist Al-Nahda party and liberal and communist groups. But the sense among them is that Al-Nahda will do well in the election, the question is just how well.

Another Kasserine resident who insisted she would be at the polling station on Sunday, is 28-year-old Hazy Mohamed Raouf, the director of a local start-up association. But he says he hasn't found the right party yet. "I'm a citizen. Why do I exist? Why do I do a revolution � to vote?" he said. "We are free and we are free to choose the party we want. We are proud to be Tunisians � with the vote."

Raouf believes it's essential that more trust is built between the people of Kasserine and the government in order for things � and the psyche of local residents who've long felt neglected and betrayed by the national authorities � to change. But in order for that to happen, the politicians must stand by their promises.

"The mentality among people here must change, through the credibility of the people in power. When they give promises they must follow through on them. They say that they will construct factories and centers � they give such promises." That might be a good piece of advice to the politicians who will be running the country in the near future.

On the wall of one building near the teachers' sit-in, the slogan "the people want another revolution" has been scribbled.

Back at the DVD shop, thirty-four-year-old Khomeya Saski, an employee in a government agency, is waiting eagerly to see if the elections will bring about tangible change on the ground in Kasserine. His town, he says, will not accept being left behind once again.

"We will wait for the Constituent Assembly�..or we will go out in the streets again to realize our goals," he said. "We want infrastructure, a freeway, compensation for the martyrs."

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