8 years on, Tunisians say revolt gave them ‘freedom’ but not ‘dignity’

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Young Tunisians speak to an AFP journalist in the commune of Douar Hicher in Tunisia's province of Manouba, on the western outskirts of the capital Tunis, on January 11, 2019. (AFP)
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Tunisian youth Omar (C) rehearses for the role of a peer who dreams of migrating to Europe, at the house of associations in the commune of Douar Hicher in Tunisia's province of Manouba, on the western outskirts of the capital Tunis, on January 11, 2019. (AFP)
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Young Tunisians watch as their colleagues rehearse for a theatrical performance at the house of associations in the commune of Douar Hicher in Tunisia's province of Manouba, on the western outskirts of the capital Tunis, on January 11, 2019. (AFP)
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Young Tunisians watch as their colleagues rehearse for a theatrical performance at the house of associations in the commune of Douar Hicher in Tunisia's province of Manouba, on the western outskirts of the capital Tunis, on January 11, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 13 January 2019
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8 years on, Tunisians say revolt gave them ‘freedom’ but not ‘dignity’

DOUAR HICHER, TUNISIA: Young Tunisians say the revolution they staged eight years ago to oust their longtime dictator has failed to restore their “dignity” and ease the North African country’s economic woes.
“Since the revolution we have freedom but still no dignity,” says Sofiene Jbeli, an unemployed computer technician who lives in the working class satellite town of Douar Hicher west of Tunis.
Like many of his compatriots Jbeli says he does not regret taking part in the first of the Arab Spring uprisings that shook the region and forced out veteran strongmen like Tunisia’s president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
But he feels bitter.
“If the system does not change in 2019 (when presidential and legislative elections are due to take place) the revolution would have been for nothing,” says the 35-year-old.
Sociologist Olfa Lamloum of the NGO International Alert shares some of Jbeli’s assessment but disagrees that the revolution failed completely.
“The revolution’s slogan was ‘work, dignity and freedom’ but the first two were not achieved,” says Lamloum.
While Tunisia has been praised as a model of democratic transition, wealth and control of the economy remain concentrated in the hands of a small elite despite economic growth.
The country is grappling with an inflation rate of 7.5 percent and unemployment stands at more than 15 percent, with those worst hit being young university graduates.
In May, Tunisia held its first free municipal elections with more than 57,000 candidates — half of them women and young people — running for office.
The quotas for women and youth candidates in the polls — touted as another milestone on the road to democracy — “allowed a large number of young people to be elected to municipal councils,” says Lamloum.
And yet, she says, “nothing has been done to improve the lives of young people... Socially, their situation has really deteriorated.”

One thing the revolution did achieve, according to Lamloum, is to allow politicians, researchers and non-governmental organizations access to impoverished areas like Douar Hicher.
This, she says, has created space for debate, although politicians did not clearly use the opportunity to look into the problems facing the population to try and find solutions.
For Jbeli and other young Tunisians this has not been enough. They point to numerous hurdles, beyond their economic hardships, that are stifling their daily life.
Following a series of deadly jihadists attacks in 2015, authorities have prevented some citizens, mainly men and women under 35, from traveling to certain countries without parental permission.
“Based on official statements, the measure is part of efforts to prevent people from joining extremist armed groups abroad,” according to Human Rights Watch, calling it “arbitrary.”
Sofiene said the measure was one of several “humiliations.”
“We launched a revolution in order to become full-fledged citizens but for me the only thing I got out of it was freedom of expression,” says high school student Hamza Dhifali.
“Before (the uprising) I could not express myself freely, now I can. It’s great, but no one listens,” he adds.
Issam Elhali, a 31-year-old father of two, says the promises made by the revolution that toppled strongman Ben Ali and forced him to flee on January 14, 2011 were “only on paper.”

Elhali says authorities have proposed loan programs to help young people set up projects.
“I borrowed 7,000 dinars ($2,400) to set up a small hardware store but the interest rate is fixed at 21 percent and I simply cannot manage that,” he says.
“The authorities say they are backing the young people but in truth they are ripping us off,” he adds.
“There is no future for us.”
Nevertheless, in Douar Hicher young people — scouts, dancers and would-be stand-up comedians — are keeping busy preparing a show to mark the eighth anniversary of Tunisia’s uprising.
Others like Elhali work in community groups tasked with keeping their town clean.
“We are the rare few to still have some hope. Others feel let down and while the time away by just sitting in cafes,” says Elhali.
He also took to task the country’s politicians and the political struggles that have recently emerged between the prime minister and the president.
“We are in a boat whose captains are having a dispute while watching the boat sink,” says Elhali.
“I want to save myself and leave the boat” and build a new life abroad.
Seventeen-year-old Zeinab Rannen agrees and hopes that by successfully passing her high school exams she will be able to rescue her “dignity.”
“I believe the way out, here or elsewhere, is through education,” she says.
“But most of all I would like to go abroad in order to win the respect and dignity I will never have here.”


In Iran, parched lands hollowed by water pumping now sinking

Updated 24 January 2019
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In Iran, parched lands hollowed by water pumping now sinking

  • Stressed by a 30-year drought and hollowed by excessive water pumping, the parched landscape around Iran's capital has begun to sink dramatically
  • Tehran has rapidly grown over the last 100 years to a sprawling city of 13 million people in its metropolitan area

TEHRAN: Fissures appear along roads while massive holes open up in the countryside, their gaping maws a visible sign from the air of something Iranian authorities now openly acknowledge: the area around Tehran is literally sinking.
Stressed by a 30-year drought and hollowed by excessive water pumping, the parched landscape around Iran's capital has begun to sink dramatically. Seen by satellite and on foot around the city, officials warn that what they call land subsidence poses a grave danger to a country where protests over water scarcity already have seen violence.
"Land subsidence is a destructive phenomenon," said Siavash Arabi, a measurement expert at Iran's cartography department. "Its impact may not be immediately felt like an earthquake, but as you can see, it can gradually cause destructive changes over time."
He said he can identify "destruction of farmland, the cracks of the earth's surface, damage to civilian areas in cities, wastewater lines, cracks in roads and damages to water and natural gas pipes."
Tehran, which sits 1,200 meters (3,900 feet) above sea level against the Alborz Mountains on a plateau, has rapidly grown over the last 100 years to a sprawling city of 13 million people in its metropolitan area.
All those people have put incredible pressure on water resources on a semi-arid plateau in a country that saw only 171 millimeters (6.7 inches) of rain last year. Over-reliance on ground aquifers has seen increasingly salty water pumped from below ground.
"Surface soil contains water and air. When you pump water from under the ground surface, you cause some empty space to be formed in the soil," Arabi told The Associated Press. "Gradually, the pressure from above causes the soil particles to stick together and this leads to sinking of the ground and formation of cracks."
Rain and snow to recharge the underground aquifers have been in short supply. Over the past decade, Iran has seen the most prolonged and severe drought in more than 30 years, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization. An estimated 97 percent of the country has faced some level of drought, Iran's Meteorological Organization says.
That has caused the sinkholes and fissures now seen around Tehran.
Iranian authorities say they have measured up to 22 centimeters (8.6 inches) of annual subsidence near the capital, while the normal range would be only as high as 3 centimeters (1.1 inches) per year.
Even higher numbers have been measured in other parts of the country. Some sinkholes formed in western Iran are as deep as 60 meters (196 feet).
Those figures are close to those found in a study by scientists at the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam previously discussed by the journal Nature and accepted by the journal Remote Sensing of Environment. Using satellite images between 2003 and 2017, the scientists estimate the western Tehran plain is sinking by 25 centimeters (9.8 inches) a year.
Either way, the numbers are alarming to experts.
"In European countries, even 4 millimeters (0.15 inches) of yearly subsidence is considered a crisis," Iranian environmental activist Mohammad Darvish said.
The sinking can be seen in Tehran's southern Yaftabad neighborhood, which sits close to farmland and water wells on the edge of the city. Cracks run down walls and below windows, and waterpipes have ruptured. Residents fear poorly built buildings may collapse.
The sinking also threatens vital infrastructure, like Tehran's Imam Khomeini International Airport. German scientists estimate that land under the airport is sinking by 5 centimeters (1.9 inches) a year.
Tehran's oil refinery, a key highway, automobile manufacturing plants and railroads also all sit on sinking ground, said Ali Beitollahi, a Ministry of Roads and Transportation official. Some 2 million people live in the area, he said.
Masoud Shafiee, head of Iran's cartography department, also acknowledged the danger.
"Rates (for subsidence) are very high and in many instances it's happening in densely populated areas," Shafiee told the AP. "It's happening near sensitive infrastructures like airports, which we consider a top priority."
Geopolitics play a role in Iran's water crisis. Since the country's 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has sought to become self-sufficient across industries to thwart international sanctions. That has included agriculture and food production.
The problem, however, comes in inefficient water use on farms, which represents over 90 percent of the country's water usage, experts say.
Already, the drought and water crisis has fed into the sporadic unrest Iran has faced over the last year. In July, protests around Khorramshahr, some 650 kilometers (400 miles) southwest of Tehran, saw violence as residents of the predominantly Arab city near the border with Iraq complained of salty, muddy water coming out of their taps amid the yearslong drought.
The unrest there only compounds the wider unease felt across Iran as it faces an economic crisis sparked by President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw America from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who long has opposed Iran's theocratic government, even released an online video in June offering his country's water technology in a jab at Iran's leaders.
"The Iranian regime shouts: 'Death to Israel,'" Netanyahu said. "In response, Israel shouts: 'Life to the Iranian people.'"
Iranian officials shrugged off the offer. But solutions to the water crisis will be difficult to find.
The crisis "stems from decades of sanctions and compounding political mismanagement that is likely to make it very difficult to alleviate the emerging crisis before it wreaks lasting damage upon the country," wrote Gabriel Collins, a fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute.
Iranian authorities have begun to crack down on illegal water wells. They also are exploring using desalinization plants along the Persian Gulf as well, though they require tremendous energy. Farming practices also need to change as well, experts say.
"We need to shift our development model so that it relies less on water and soil," Darvish, the activist, said. "If we don't act quickly to stop the subsidence, it can spread to other areas."