TUNIS (Reuters) - They came from the grim cities and bleak farms of Tunisia’s interior to make their voices heard in the capital on the coast. But the hundreds who joined Sunday’s “freedom caravan” may as well have come from another world.
By the standards of its neighbours in North Africa and the Middle East, Tunisia is an economic success story. Its people are educated. It attracts substantial foreign investment, mainly from Europe. Most people are covered by state health care.
But protesters from the central province of Sidi Bouzid, where a vegetable seller’s desperate suicide by burning sparked the nationwide revolt, say they have not shared in that success.
They complain that investment was concentrated in Tunis and the opulent resorts of the north and east coasts favored by ousted president Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali and the wealthy elite.
“The south is marginalized. Sidi Bouzid, Gessrine, all the lands of the interior are marginalized,” said Ammar Khlaifi, who now lives in Tunis but came originally from the center.
“The wealth is all on the coast.”
The statistics speak for themselves. According to the official www.investintunisia.tn website, 964 foreign firms employ nearly 93,000 people in the eastern coastal provinces of Monastir, Sfax, Mahdia and Ben Ali’s home town of Sousse.
Greater Tunis boasts 966 foreign firms employing 87,000.
That compares with just 56 foreign firms employing under 7,000 people in the interior provinces of Sidi Bouzid, Kairouan and Gessrine. The southwestern provinces of Gefsa, Kebili and Tozeur fare worse, with 31 foreign employers giving 2,500 jobs.
Better connected, by road and rail, greener, boasting ports and sandy beaches, the coastal areas have long fared better.
More remote, Sidi Bouzid has struggled to diversify.
It is largely agricultural, producing 13 percent of Tunisia’s almonds and 10 percent of its olives. Farming employs 40 percent of the province’s workforce. Locals complain that even the land they farm is not owned by them but by the state.
“We are marginalized. Our land is owned by the government. We have nothing. We are not independent,” said Mahfouzi Chouki.
“Agricultural lands are all owned by the state.”
Protesters gathering outside the prime minister’s office to demand a new government, said their farm produce was processed elsewhere and there were no jobs for Sidi Bouzid’s graduates.
They were determined, they said, not to let the legacy of Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself alight in protest at poverty and oppression, end with the flight of Ben Ali to Saudi Arabia. They also want his lieutenants out of the interim government.
“We want to work. We want to get rid of this government,” said Salem Misadi, from the town of Mazzouna in Sidi Bouzid province. “In Mazzouna, there’s no work, no factories, nothing.” For some, Tunisia may be a victim of its own success. The rural poverty the people of Sidi Bouzid decry, pales in comparison to that found in nearby Egypt or Algeria. But Tunisia’s large middle class aspires to even higher salaries, comparing themselves to Europeans across the Mediterranean.
Tunisia has grown an average of 5 percent each year over the past two decades, according to the World Bank website. By the bank’s definition, seven percent of Tunisians live in poverty, one of the lowest rates in the region.
And yet the number of young unemployed has doubled over the past 10 years. Astonishingly perhaps, the better educated the individual, the more likely he or she is to be jobless.
Tunisians from all walks of life say they can only find jobs through connections or bribes. But the protesters from the interior say their demands were never heard in Tunis: “We came from Sidi Bouzid, from Kairouan, from Gefsa,” said one of the demonstrators, Safi Adel, “To bring our voice to the capital.”
Writing by Lin Noueihed, Editing by Andrew Hammond and Alastair Macdonald