By Andrew Hammond
SIDI BOUZID, Tunisia | Fri Oct 28, 2011 1:50pm EDT
(Reuters) – This provincial Tunisian town became the cradle of the “Arab Spring” revolts nearly a year ago because residents were fed up with being talked down to by elites in the distant capital.
On Friday the town erupted into violence once again because, local people said, despite a revolution that swept away the country’s rulers and installed a new Islamist leadership, nothing had really changed.
Protesters angry that election candidates they backed had been disqualified rampaged through Sidi Bouzid, setting fire to a court-house, a police headquarters, the mayor’s office and the offices of a rival party.
In the worst clashes of the first post-“Arab Spring” election, one that otherwise passed off peacefully, troops fired into the air to try to disperse a crowd attacking the office of the regional governor.
“Where did my vote go?” said a local man called Ahmed who, like many in the town, did not want to give his full name in case he was prosecuted over the violence.
“It was an open election and I can vote for who I like. They took away our rights,” he said.
It was in Sidi Bouzid 11 months ago that Mohamed Bouazizi, a vegetable seller, set fire to himself in an act of protest that swelled into a national revolt.
After forcing out president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s revolution inspired uprisings which ousted entrenched leaders in Egypt and Libya.
The spark for the latest violence in Sidi Bouzid was that the independent commission overseeing an election for a new assembly invalidated seats won by several candidates with the Popular List, a party headed by London-based businessman Hachmi Hamdi.
That was only the first insult, in the eyes of people in this town, 280 km (170 miles) south of the capital.
Senior officials in the Islamist Ennahda party, which won the election, said they would not work with Hamdi’s party in the assembly and went on television to describe the people of Sidi Bouzid as poor and marginalized.
When the disqualification of several Popular List candidates was announced by the election commission, journalists at a news conference broadcast live stood up and applauded.
To some local residents, it felt like a slap in the face from the capital.
“When the journalists started clapping and ululating, that’s when it started,” said another man, who gave his name as Mohammed.
Officials from Ennahda “insulted us,” said a resident called Lamine. “This is the reaction.”
He also touched on another grievance: that while the revolution in January brought democracy, it has so far failed to deliver the jobs and better housing many people in Tunisia’s provinces had hoped for.
“Tunisia’s revolution started in Sidi Bouzid,” he said. “What we demand is an end to regionalism. We are the sons of Sidi Bouzid and we suffer massive unemployment,” said Lamine.
“To these political parties I say: we are proud of Hachmi Hamdi. He has votes and he has supporters.”
By Friday afternoon, the violence had subsided, leaving behind wrecked and gutted buildings.
Flames and choking smoke were coming out of the office of the municipal police after rioters earlier set fire to it, and the streets were littered with burning rubbish.
The town’s court house and municipal government office were gutted. Charred chairs and tables were strewn around, papers were scattered everywhere and electricity cables hung from the ceiling.
A Reuters reporter saw two dozen burned-out cars in the streets. There was no sign of any police. They appeared to have pulled out, leaving the military to try to keep order.
Four soldiers had shown up to guard the burned-out hulk of the courthouse. Asked why they were not there to stop it being torched, one of the soldiers said he did not know and had only arrived on Friday morning.
One man touring the wreckage was angry at the destruction. He echoed the view of Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi that the violence was orchestrated by Ben Ali loyalists still trying to sabotage the revolution.
“The people behind this are the former regime,” he said, and then pointed angrily at the soldiers. “Look at them, they are just standing, watching us.”