Nearly four years later, the dusty road between Sidi Bouzid’s main thoroughfare and the humble residential quarter where Mohamed Bouazizi grew up is still blemished with the same potholes. He was not known in his hometown by that name. Though international media outlets immortalized this moniker after he set himself on fire, the first name of the young Tunisian street vendor who lit the now clichéd proverbial match was Tarek. (Full name: Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi.) His friends called him Basbousa. In the popular discourse, the story of Sidi Bouzid’s December 2010 uprising is something of a fairy tale: The youth revolted, the tyrant fell and the Arab world’s first real democracy was forged in the fires of Bouazizi’s rage. What is missing from reality, however, and what often draws contempt from the same youth in Sidi Bouzid whom the narrative seeks to glorify, is the happily-ever-after. Four years later, the social malaise that set the stage for the revolt is very much present, as are the explosive emotions that made it happen.
The dominant sense among the youth in Sidi Bouzid is helplessness — a feeling that society has forgotten them. They typically respond to political questions with angry accusations of betrayal, usually directed at an imagined, all-encompassing “system” that controls everything. Although the youth of Sidi Bouzid are suffering daily, it is not material poverty that fuels their resentment. Rather, it is a poverty of meaning and purpose in their lives that the stagnant economy has engendered. The suffering is existential. Strolling through Sidi Bouzid’s small downtown area, even on a weekday morning, one inevitably finds the cafés packed with card-playing young men — the streets are filled with outdoor tables, with nary a spare seat in sight. While the youths who sit at the tables often wear superficial smiles, their eyes exude a wistful sadness. Many of these men once had promising futures — some hold university degrees and years ago envisioned themselves in successful professional careers at this point in their lives. Now their only solace is their ability to refer to themselves as lawyers or engineers; despite never having worked in these fields, the formal titles that their generally useless certifications carry confer at least a sliver of dignity.
In addition to the boredom and feelings of inadequacy, the “failure to launch” that so many young men experience also prevents them from marrying and starting families of their own. In Tunisia, men are still expected to be the primary breadwinners and, as marriage in Sidi Bouzid is largely a family affair, parents will usually not consent to marry off their daughters unless they are confident that the would-be husbands can support them financially. Even supposedly “good jobs” often do not offer high enough salaries to give families these assurances. It is not uncommon to hear stories of men who have been engaged for three or four years, only to be forced to break off their engagements as a consequence of their failure to find suitable employment. The feelings of shame and self-loathing that such situations create, compounded by sexual frustration and a lack of intimacy, lead to a sense that one has not fulfilled his purpose in life.
By itself, shame need not be a political emotion: For many, it is private suffering that does not inspire a desire to move against the established order. In Sidi Bouzid, however, the painful feelings of inadequacy coincide with an increased awareness of the significantly greater standard of living and opportunities available to their counterparts in the West. The youth (who bear the brunt of the economic malaise) are the most cognizant of this difference: Through Facebook, YouTube and the Hollywood movies available on satellite television, they see societies where, as they perceive it, people are generally able to advance their lives. As one bitter masters degree holder told me: “In your country, you think of having a house and a car as a right. For us, it’s merely a dream.” These comparisons do not occur in a vacuum.
As a starting point, people are reminded daily of their country’s legacy as a French colonial possession; signs are written in the French language and, even in Sidi Bouzid, many products in the supermarkets are from France. Of greater concern is the role of the United States. The present generation of youth came of age during America’s occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. They associate the US with images of terrifying firepower — the “shock and awe” videos of the 2003 US bombing of Baghdad are seared into their consciousness. Many young men in Sidi Bouzid tend to view even domestic political struggles through the prism of foreign domination: While their grievances with the regime of ousted Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali were many, there is a perception that the regime was simply a client of France and the US with no independent will of its own. In the minds of many disaffected youth in Sidi Bouzid, there is a sense that their desperate personal circumstances are the result of global power dynamics. This belief has helped transform personal feelings of shame into politically charged feelings of humiliation.
In the immediate aftermath of the Tunisian revolution, the youth of Sidi Bouzid were highly enthusiastic about political engagement: The town witnessed frequent demonstrations and discussions in cafés centered around politics. Many young people volunteered their time as activist-journalists, operating blogs and Facebook pages that sought to contribute to the debate on the country’s future. Now, however, a strangely politicized kind of depoliticization has taken hold. On the one hand, a large number of youth in Sidi Bouzid express an unequivocal rejection of political parties and politicians; many seem intent on boycotting the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. But the reasons they give for their rejectionist attitude are highly political; it is not apathy that motivates them but conscious protest against the status quo. They describe politicians in sweeping terms as corrupt, power-hungry thieves and lambast the dominant Ennahda and Nida’ Tunis parties as agents of the French and US governments. “Everyday I turn on the news and hear about all the billions that Tunisia has received in foreign aid, but we never see any of it!” exclaims one young man. “Where is the money? Who took it?”
One interpretation of this posture is that the youth are simply making a rational decision to turn their backs on a system that has not given them the benefits they sought. Many of them cite the lack of improvement in their personal circumstances during the four years since the revolt in Sidi Bouzid as the reason for their disavowal of formal political forces. If one shifts the analysis from the material to the experiential, however, a more critical interpretation emerges. In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, political engagement provided youth with the feelings of agency, and a sense of meaning and purpose that their lives lacked. The utopian rhetoric of the revolution allowed them to believe not simply that circumstances would soon rapidly improve, but that they were playing a privileged, honored role in shaping the course of human events. This feeling of agency helped soothe the painful humiliation to which daily monotony gave rise.
Established political parties, by contrast, seem to have reached a consensus that sustainable political reform requires gradual change and tedious negotiation. Indeed, some analysts have suggested that the comparative success of the Tunisian transition largely stems from the commitment that the political elite has shown to this principle. To accept such a view, Sidi Bouzid’s youth would be forced to abandon hope for quick improvement in their economic and social circumstances. They would also be forced to accept that their personal importance in shaping the nation’s destiny was and is far more modest than they had envisioned. For many young men in Sidi Bouzid, such an admission would be tantamount to accepting the humiliation and learning to live with it, an undignified surrender to desperation.
The only political force that has maintained even a semblance of legitimacy among Sidi Bouzid’s disaffected youth is the jihadist salafi current — a religio-political movement that combines a rigid, literalist interpretation of Islam with a rejection of democracy and an ideology of confrontation toward the West. In the immediate aftermath of the Tunisian revolution, several young salafi activists from Sidi Bouzid were released from prison as part of a general amnesty. Almost immediately, they organized a campaign of proselytism and outreach that succeeded in convincing a large number of the town’s youth to join the movement. Not all youth wholeheartedly adopted a salafi identity, but many came to sympathize with the movement and regard some of its doctrines as correct. While the arguments the salafis present are religious, the political critique they offer is impossible to miss. During ‘Id al-Fitr prayers in late July, for example, the imam of the town’s premier salafi mosque equated participation in elections with apostasy. The movement also remains supportive of jihadist groups outside of Tunisia, and in the aftermath of the revolution, many young men from Sidi Bouzid traveled to Syria to take up arms against the Asad regime.
The resonance of salafi ideas among Sidi Bouzid’s youth is not hard to understand. The ideology is utopian, arguing that a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law offers a panacea for all manner of social ills. Second, one of the movement’s core claims is that simply by adopting salafi ideas one can join a privileged elite that will be responsible for ushering the country, and ultimately all of humanity, into a golden age of purity and prosperity. For those in existential crisis, these appeals cry out to be believed. Third, the salafi movement serves as a poignant expression of the anger many youth in Sidi Bouzid feel toward “the system” — again defined as a nexus of insidious foreign agents and corrupt local clients.
Committed salafi ideologues remain a distinct minority in Sidi Bouzid, and even among the much larger segment of young men who sympathize with the movement, the affinity remains conditional. Some youth laud the salafis for their personal piety, while expressing disgust at the actions of the jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq that salafis align themselves with. Others are supportive of the group’s confrontational posture toward the West, but find its puritanical religious doctrines excessive. Still more are confused — expressing support for the movement in one breath, while referring to salafis as extremists in the next. One thing remains certain, however: The salafi movement is the only force in Sidi Bouzid capable of bringing large numbers of youths into the streets. In the summer of 2014, after police arrested the imam of the town’s largest salafi mosque, the movement staged a high-profile demonstration that quickly devolved into clashes as protesters hurled rocks at police lines through a mist of tear gas. While many demonstrators were hard-core salafis, a large number were simply disenchanted youth with few ideological commitments looking for an outlet for their frustration. Nevertheless, they gleefully chanted the salafis’ slogan: “O tyrant! O coward! The house of God will not be insulted!”
Ultimately, when one strips away the passions and the rhetoric, what one finds is a sense of being trapped, of having no way out. “The youth of Sidi Bouzid went to Syria and died. Or went to jail. Or burned their passports and emigrated illegally,” says one long-term unemployed youth. “There are no men left here, only women.” Another speaks of the lack of options more directly: “I can go to the café, and play rummy, and live the same routine every day, or I can go to the mosque and learn about jihad. That’s it. There’s nothing else.” Political parties urge patience and patriotism, but for many youth in Sidi Bouzid the clock is ticking. The potholes are still unfilled.