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Tunisians are voting in an election critics say could cement a return to autocracy

Central Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, where, over a decade ago, a fruit vendor set himself on fire and set off a wave of Arab uprisings.
Claire Harbage
/
NPR
Central Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, where, over a decade ago, a fruit vendor set himself on fire and set off a wave of Arab uprisings.

SIDI BOUZID, TUNISIA — It was in the center of this city in central Tunisia that a wave of Arab uprisings was set off with one desperate act.

A fruit vendor, angry after police harassed him and confiscated his street cart and produce, set himself on fire in the middle of traffic just in front of the governor's office. Mohamed Bouazizi's despair resonated and triggered a revolution that led to the overthrow of an autocrat. As the story goes, before he doused himself in gasoline he asked "how do you expect me to make a living?"

Twelve years later, rights groups say the only budding democracy that emerged from the 2011 Arab revolutions is now at risk of returning to autocracy under Tunisia's President Kais Saied. He's been consolidating power and arresting political opponents. The parliamentary election appears to be one more step toward cementing that regression.

Waseem Jday, 31, walks through his neighborhood on the outskirts of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. He's been unemployed for over a decade.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Waseem Jday, 31, walks through his neighborhood on the outskirts of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. He's been unemployed for over a decade.

It's why Wasseem Jday is boycotting today's vote, timed to the anniversary of Bouazizi's self-immolation.

"We cannot talk about democracy anymore after what happened on July 25th," he said. He references the date the president dissolved the elected parliament last year and took the powers for himself.

Today the president rules by decree.

Dressed in a T-shirt and black blazer, Jday walks through the middle class neighborhood where he grew up on the outskirts of Sidi Bouzid. He points out his childhood home-turned-kindergarten across the street from an unfinished building with a wedding dress shop on the bottom floor. Then he heads down the block to his sister's house.

At 31, like the people he helps as the head of the local unemployment association, he can't afford his own place. So he splits his time between his sister's home and his parents'.

We lost hope. We lost expecting things. There's nothing on the horizon.

"I don't want to say that the situation was better before, but the reality is that the situation has gotten much worse, especially for the youth and I am one of them," Jday. "We lost hope. We lost expecting things. There's nothing on the horizon."

Since he graduated with a degree in sports education 11 years ago, he's been unemployed like more than 18% of people in his province. That number has been creeping up every year across the country.

Jday takes odd jobs in agriculture or construction. About half of Tunisia's population works in the informal economy, mostly the young, without benefits or worker protections.

Not having a job has stalled his life. Jday thought he'd have kids and a wife at this age.

"To get married, you need a fixed income," he said. "You need a house. You need to be capable of spending on your family. There's none of this."

The promise of work and development from the revolution never came to be. Jday blames years of political infighting and paralysis among Tunisia's many parties. It's why, when Saied first got rid of the parliament, Jday was filled with a mixture of happiness and fear.

"Fear because we didn't know where we were going," Jday said.

And happiness "because of this change."

People participate in a protest against President Kais Saied last week.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
People participate in a protest against President Kais Saied last week.

The country had seen ten major government changes since the revolution, dealt with one political crisis after the next as the government failed to reform an economic system built on corruption and cronyism. Then the pandemic came and deepened Tunisia's economic crisis.

But when Saied started arresting his political opponents and suspended the post-revolutionary constitution, Jday realized something was wrong.

The biggest victory of the revolution was the new constitution, he said. An elected assembly wrote it after years of public discussion to establish checks and balances and protect human rights. Earlier this year, Saied replaced it with a new constitution he put together and put to a referendum. It passed by a landslide, but turnout was low.

Bouazizi's grave (center bottom) is a simple resting place nestled in a small cemetery outside his family village. The epitaph reads "Martyr."
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Bouazizi's grave (center bottom) is a simple resting place nestled in a small cemetery outside his family village. The epitaph reads "Martyr."

"There was a deception, a big deception," Jday said. "We understood then that we were going into a dictatorship and into one man rule in this country, one man with all the power. We have a fear of losing the liberty and freedom that was our only gain since 2011."

Today, exactly 12 years after Jday protested for work, dignity and freedom in the birth city of Tunisia's revolution, I ask if he'd gotten those demands.

Work?

"No."

Freedom?

He hesitates for a moment trying to decide. Then answers.

"No."

Dignity?

"No."

Jday's older brother, Yassin, is voting. He's 49 and has a job.

"I respect [my brother's] point of view. I respect all the different point of views. But I disagree with him," Yassin said. "The 25th of July opened new horizons and gave us hope. If we lose hope, we lose the coming generations. We lose those who are now migrating illegally. We lose those who are unemployed and have been fighting to find a job for years. We lose everything."

"People just need to be patient," Yassin said. "Give the president some time. Vote in a new parliament."

Yassin Jday is voting and participating in the electoral process.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Yassin Jday is voting and participating in the electoral process.

In central Sidi Bouzid, the street where Bouazizi set himself on fire, is a shrine to his legacy.

His portrait covers the building that houses the post office. A giant beige replica of the cart taken from him is now erected in the traffic circle called Martyr's Square.

In big, black letters, graffiti spells out the date that Bouazizi set himself on fire: December 17, 2010. There's also another date, October 13th, 2019, with the words "The People Want."

It shows just how popular Saied was when he ran as a political outsider on an anti-corruption platform.

Mohamed Bouazizi's portrait covers the building that houses the post office in Sidi Bouzid.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Mohamed Bouazizi's portrait covers the building that houses the post office in Sidi Bouzid.

Today he rules alone. Saied claims what he's doing is "correcting the course of the revolution." He's said he's trying to pull the country out of its economic crisis and has no aspirations of a dictator.

But every step he's taken erodes checks and balances on his power and suppresses critics. Some of his political opponents are being prosecuted in military court. Meanwhile, the economic pain in Tunisia has only grown in the midst of the political instability and a global economic downturn. People can't find basic goods like milk, inflation is soaring and the country is on the verge of economic collapse.

"If I had the president or his prime minister in front of me, I would ask them a very simple question," said Selim Kharrat, the head of the Tunisian watchdog group Al Bawsala. "You had two years without any kind of opposition. You are alone to take any kind of decision you want. You did a lot of steps. You did adopt a lot of new laws. What are the results? What is the outcome?"

"Nothing."

People wave flags and chant at a protest against President Kais Saied last week.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
People wave flags and chant at a protest against President Kais Saied last week.

The only real change Tunisians have seen, Kharrat said, is the chipping away of freedom of speech and other liberties.

"Tunisia is on the way to autocracy," he said. "The legislative elections is one of the last steps of this process that the president implemented by himself."

Across the country it's clear a malaise has set in, especially among the young. People are giving up on the political process altogether because life just keeps getting harder.

In central Sidi Bouzid, down the street from where the revolution started, two young men sip coffee and smoke cigarettes.

Both are unemployed. They sit around most days, with no vision of a future.

Their plan not to vote isn't a political statement. They just don't see the point. Wajdi Naji describes his daily reality in one repeated sentence.

"We wake up, we smoke, we get drunk, we sleep," he said.

Friends Bahadine Ensiri (left) and Wajdi Naji sit together drinking coffee and smoking at a park, neither plan to vote in the election.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Friends Bahadine Ensiri (left) and Wajdi Naji sit together drinking coffee and smoking at a park, neither plan to vote in the election.

"That's our life. Either we think about migrating illegally or smuggling stuff into the country that we can sell."

They have the same question Bouazizi asked on the day he set himself on fire all those years ago: How do you expect me to make a living?

NPR's Olivia Hampton and NPR's Larry Kaplow edited the radio story.

Shelby Ben Brahim contributed reporting from Tunisia. Majd Al-Waheidi edited the digital version. contributed to this story

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
David West Jr.