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Why The Birthplace Of The Tunisian Revolution Has Turned Against The Family Of The Martyr Who Started It All

Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest last December, launching the Arab Spring from the small Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid. Now his family has moved away, facing the scorn of locals who say they’re cashing in at the city's expense.

A Jan. 18 rally in Sidi Bouzid
A Jan. 18 rally in Sidi Bouzid
Isabelle Mandraud

SIDI BOUZID - The small, traditional house with its water spigot in the yard is sealed shut. Its occupants have left and locked the door, moving far away – 265 kilometers north – to the capital of Tunis. At the end of the street, the graffiti that was drawn in memory of the "martyr" has been painted over in gray, with indignation. "We're angry because they have made themselves rich and abandoned us," a neighbor explains. "It's as if the revolution has gone to Tunis."

In Sidi Bouzid, nothing is left for the Bouazizi family, who were victims twice over, now suffering from a fame that was as overwhelming as it was sudden. This is where it all started on Dec. 17, 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of the governor's office situated at the heart of this poor, drought-stricken agricultural city. A street vendor of fruits and vegetables, the 26-year-old had one too many altercations with municipal officials who wanted to confiscate his cart.

His desperate (ultimately suicidal) act lead to an angry local protest, and then another. The popular uprising moved to the neighboring cities and towns before finally spreading rapidly throughout the whole country. Less than a month later, on Jan. 14, the government of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fell after 23 years of dictatorship. Mohamed Bouazizi became the icon of the Tunisian revolution.

After him, dozens of youth attempted to set themselves ablaze, some successfully, in Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, and Egypt. His portrait could be found everywhere. On posters, calendars, stamps, and books. In nearby Ben Arous, the burn victims hospital where he died on Jan. 4 was renamed Mohamed Bouazizi Hospital. A street in Paris will eventually be named after him as well.

In the center of Sidi Bouzid, the symbolic monument of the old regime, a "7" marking the date (Nov. 7, 1987) that Ben Ali came to power, is hidden by a huge picture of a smiling Mohamed Bouazizi, as well as two smaller ones belonging to other "martyrs."

Journalists from all over the world visited the family. "Caravans of thanks' converged on Sidi Bouzid. Even Tunisian politicians made the pilgrimage to this small town. There were also interviews with key figures. The oldest dates back to Dec. 28, 2010, when, after visiting the bedside of Mohamed Bouazizi at the hospital, the former president Ben Ali met with Manoubia, his mother.

Mohamed's sister, Leila Bouazizi, 24, was at the meeting with the president. "It didn't even last ten minutes," she recalls. "He said, ‘The doctors are taking care of him, everything is all right, he will recover." But we could tell by his facial expressions that he wasn't a kind person." Two weeks later, Bouazizi was dead. The most recent visit took place on March 23 when Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations, passing through Tunis, wanted to meet and speak with the family.

But soon after, rumors started to spread that the family had somehow exploited their plight for gain. "They became rich with the donations from all over the world," accuses a Sidi Bouazizi resident, sitting on a palm tree of the main square. "They sold the cart for 16,000 dinars $11,500," the neighbor claims to know.

Compassion has been replaced with resentment. "The government took the family and settled them in LaMarsa a suburb of Tunis to keep the journalists from coming here. They are simple people, and they have been manipulated," says Taoufik Sniha, member of the Revolution Counsel of Sidi Bouzid that was created on March 11, at the same time that the family left the town.

The victim's older brother, Salem, 27, works as a carpenter in Tunisia's second largest city Sfax. The mother, Manoubia, Leila and her sisters, Semia, 19, Basma, 16, and the two younger brothers, Karim, 14, and Zyed, 8, live at the edge of a working-class neighborhood of La Marsa. "Until today, the government has given us nothing except 20,000 dinars $14,500, just like the rest of the families of martyrs," Leila says.

But Sidi Bouzid jealously guards its revolution, as evidenced by the banners and flyers on the walls that accuse Tunis of seizing the status as the uprising's true home. "The revolution of freedom and dignity is December 17, not January 14."

The departure of the Bouazizis was seen as a desertion. "We left because of the pressure, so that things would calm down and because mother was very tired," protests Leila. "There were rumors that journalists paid us 5,000 dinars $3,600, and then when we saw Ban Ki-moon, people said that he gave us money, but it's not true."

And the famous vegetable cart? It was "hidden" by the older brother, Leila says, "because everyone wanted to buy it," citing rumors that Gulf countries offered 160,000 dinars $116,100 to acquire it. "Maybe they spoke with Salem, I don't know…" Just above a whisper, she adds with difficulty, "We were not expecting all this, it's a catastrophe."

About 20 kilometers 12.5 miles from Sidi Bouzid, in a cemetery situated in the home village of the family, the pole planted in front of the grave has disappeared. But the Tunisian flag laid on the grave catches your eye at first glance, a solitary splash of red in the dusty green fields covered with cacti.

Read the original article in French.

Photo - magharebia

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