December 17, 2015

SIDI BOUZID, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisians who won the Nobel Peace Prize joined townspeople in the country’s beleaguered heartland to mark five years since a desperate street vendor set himself on fire, unwittingly setting in motion upheaval across the Arab world.

Tunisia is the only country to have emerged with a budding democracy. But it’s grappling with the threat of violent Islamic extremism, now ravaging the region from neighboring Libya to Syria, after uprisings inspired by Tunisia’s revolt that led to lawlessness or civil war.

Members of the Tunisian quartet of non-governmental groups that won this year’s Nobel took part in a series of events Thursday in Sidi Bouzid, the epicenter of Tunisia’s revolution, where fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself afire on Dec. 17, 2010.

It was a personal gesture of protest by Bouazizi, 27. But his cry of despair captured the plight of the poor and jobless and echoed throughout the North African country, triggering protests that left 300 dead and thousands injured.

Within a month, the country’s autocratic ruler, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, had fled to Saudi Arabia after nearly a quarter-century as president — and soon protests erupted in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Morocco.

A statue of a wooden cart like that used by Bouazizi to sell fruits stands on the main road. A huge banner and posters hail Bouazizi, now a national hero. But its residents are still struggling. “Since Dec. 17th, the only thing is that we can speak freely,” said Jamel Saghrouni, a schoolmate of Bouazizi’s who has a degree in French literature, but is jobless.

“But there is corruption. There is no work, no progress,” Saghrouni said. “We can only speak, but we can’t do anything.” Tunisian leaders worked tirelessly to establish a new structure to birth democracy in a land that has known no such thing since it gained independence from France in 1956.

It has been a rocky path, and the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet won the Nobel for preventing its collapse. It stepped into a political crisis in 2013, pushing rival leaders toward a caretaker government to organize elections. Parties returned to the table to complete a new constitution.

“We are bringing a message of hope to the population of Sidi Bouzid and other regions pushed aside,” Abdessattar Ben Moussa, head of the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights told The Associated Press. “Because five years after the revolution there has been no solution to the economic and social problems they suffer.”

The main labor union, the bar association and the employers’ association are the other member organizations of the Quartet. Unlike in neighboring Libya or Egypt, where long-time leaders fell, Tunisia has worked to put in place the structural requirements for democracy, and tried to seed the mindset crucial to ensure it flourishes. But, as in those countries, it has contended throughout with rising Islamic extremism.

Deadly attacks this year by extremists on tourists at the Bardo National Museum and a luxury hotel in the resort town of Sousse struck at the heart of the tourism industry, a mainstay of the Tunisian economy. Most recently, a suicide bomber hit a bus carrying presidential guard members down the main avenue in the capital.

“We praise God that Tunisia hasn’t fallen into chaos like other countries,” said Ali Bouazizi, a political activist and distant cousin of Mohamed Bouazizi. “Our revolution was peaceful from the start and until today. Thanks to dialogue and consensus we’ve overcome crises,” he added, “which is why we’re considered an exception.”

Ben Bouazza reported from Tunis.

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