Tunisia: Broken dreams six months after revolution

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Making a political joke in Tunisia used to be a quick way to get arrested. But half a year on from the revolution, Wassim Herissi's satirical radio phone-in has made him a star.

He does all the voices. His impersonation of Col Gaddafi, a regular caller, is spookily like the Libyan leader's high decibel rasp.

He debates one of Tunisia's current controversies, over whether or not to make people work in the afternoons in the summer. Traditionally, they knock off at one.

Good idea, says Wassim's colonel. In the afternoon there will be no Nato, and no International Criminal Court. "I'll be able to swim in the sea and dance with the people, because they love me, they love me all..." says the colonel.

On the show, he argues with Tunisia's former President Ben Ali, who fled in January, about who's most popular.

There is a lot to satirise in Tunisia at the moment. Revolutions always come with unfulfilled hopes, especially after only six months. But Wassim's corner of the new Tunisia isn't so bad.

"Of course, yes it's better after Ben Ali… before I couldn't talk about politics, or about Gaddafi and the president."

'Clean revolution'

After the show, Wassim admits Tunisians were lucky.

"We had a clean revolution. The former president turned out to be a coward. He just ran away. Not like the others - like the poor Libyans, or in Syria - but it lit the fuse to all the other revolutions."

Clean perhaps compared to what followed elsewhere, especially in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. Overthrowing President Ben Ali still meant a month facing the regime's police, and tear gas, beatings and live bullets.

Tunisia's is the most complete of all the Arab revolutions. But many of the people who now can stroll down streets that were battlegrounds during the revolution are disappointed.

Back in January, Tunisia showed the rest of the Arab world that it was possible to remove a leader, despite a police state and despite his powerful Western friends.

Since then Tunisia has also shown that getting rid of a dictator doesn't solve all a country's problems. Years of corruption and mismanagement leave a very difficult legacy.

Tunisia is unstable enough for the army still to guard government buildings in Tunis. Elections have been postponed until October to allow new parties time to get ready.

But even a successful, free and fair vote won't on its own fix unemployment, which is Tunisia's new biggest problem.

People's hero

Mohamed Bouazizi, the young man whose death started the uprising, killed himself after years without a proper job.

He lived and died in Sidi Bouzid, a medium-sized town about three hours drive from Tunis. Local people started demonstrating after Bouazizi set himself on fire on 17 December.

Government inspectors had confiscated his cart and some boxes of pears. He did not have a licence to be a street trader. None were ever issued. For him, it was the last insult.

Like many young people, he had a pent-up rage inside him after years of without a proper job or real freedom. By the time Bouazizi died a few days into the new year, protests were spreading across the country.

The inspectors who confiscated his produce sit in their office in a small whitewashed building with sky blue shutters. The only woman, Feyda Hamdi, slight, middle-aged, with a yellow headscarf, denies the reports that circulated at the time that she had slapped Mohamed Bouazizi.

She wept as she remembered how she spent 110 days in prison, unjustly she says, after he became the peoples' hero.

The officials in this room were symbols of a repressive regime. But even they agree that a revolution was coming. The suicide of Bouazizi was, they insist, not their fault and simply a catalyst for what is happening in Tunisia and across the Arab world.

Image caption,
There is little work to occupy Tunisians

"The revolution was going to happen in Tunisia," Mrs Hamdi said. "Today, tomorrow, or after tomorrow, it was going to happen, because of the accumulation of frustration. We don't know when exactly, but we knew it was going to happen. He was just the first spark. It was like a full glass of water, and he was the drop that made it overflow."

Boiling point

Sidi Bouzid is full of men killing time, still frustrated and angry that they can't earn money for their families. Elections are due in October, but on their own they won't create jobs. Pavement cafes are packed with men nursing small coffees, or tiny glasses of sweet black tea.

"I'm in the cafe all day - at noon, at 1, 2, at 5, at 10, 11," complained Hisham Laabidi, a 19-year-old who gets occasional work polishing marble. "I drink 50 coffees a day… I want to have a job, build my life, be rich, and work."

His brother Mongi, 10 years older, works from time to time in construction.

"The problem is that I'm afraid that what we're dreaming of won't be realised. A real revolution should include and change many things, like things in education, health, employment, more justice, more freedom."

At the vegetable market where Mohamed Bouazizi worked, you sense that the men - there are almost no women on the streets - are never far from their boiling point, wanting more change, more quickly. There's even some nostalgia for the quiet streets that used to be part of being in a police state.

Image caption,
A vegetable seller in Sidi Bouzid - home of the revolution

A man wearing a farmer's straw hat against the sun said they wanted to stability and security again. And the man next to him said it didn't matter what had started in Sidi Bouzid.

"Even if the whole world is set on fire we don't care. We just want this country to be fixed."

The old Arab world couldn't satisfy the people. They've shown they won't be ignored anymore. So how long will their patience last if the new world doesn't deliver?