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Sun 18 Dec 2011 07:56 AM

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Cradle of Arab Spring celebrates first anniversary

Thousands flood Tunisia’s streets to mark tide of revolt that has transformed Arab world

Cradle of Arab Spring celebrates first anniversary
The Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid unveils a giant status to Mohamed Bouaziz

Tens of thousands of people packed a provincial town square
to celebrate the first anniversary on Saturday of Tunisia's democratic
revolution in the place where it began, unleashing a tide of popular revolt
that has transformed the Arab world.

The festive mood in Sidi Bouzid was tempered somewhat,
however, by reminders that democratic change in Tunisia has yet to ease poverty
and high unemployment - bread and butter issues that preoccupy many Tunisians
and have triggered rioting.

The fuse for "Arab Spring" uprisings was lit when
a jobless unemployed university graduate in Sidi Bouzid set himself on fire in
despair at police who had confiscated his unlicensed fruit and vegetable cart.
He died later in hospital.

Mohamed Bouazizi's death took the lid off simmering anger
about poverty, joblessness, corruption and repression. Protests erupted across
Tunisia, forcing autocratic President Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country
less than a month later.

Tunisia's revolution inspired other Arabs to rise up against
entrenched authoritarian rulers. They were overthrown in Egypt and Libya.
Yemen's leader has stepped aside for a reformist transition while Syria's
president faces a spreading insurgency.

In Sidi Bouzid, tens of thousands of people rallied joyfully
in the central square, dancing to the rhythms of popular songs despite cold
weather, and flags and photographs of Tunisians killed in the uprising decorated
the streets.

A ceremony was held, attended by the new president and his
prime minister, to unveil a giant status of Bouazizi, who has become a national
hero in the North African country.

"It's a day of joy; Sidi Bouzid has long suffered from
neglect and today it has become the capital of the world," said a dancing
young man who identified himself as Emad.

"On December 17 last year, the Arab world began a new
page of history, this is really a source of pride," he said.

Celebrations will run through the weekend with some leading
international figures on hand, including the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Yemeni
opposition activist Tawakkol Karman.

But Manoubia Bouazizi, Mohammed's mother, conveyed the
underlying concerns of many by urging Tunisian authorities to parlay the
revolution into a better quality of life for the population, especially the
young.

"[My son] set himself alight to grant liberty to
Tunisia and the Arab world ... I ask government officials to pay attention to
poor areas and provide jobs for young people," she said.

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Moncef Marzouki, made president this week as part of a
governing coalition installed after Tunisia's first democratic vote, paid
tribute to Tunisians who defied Ben Ali and in some cases paid with their lives
to see through the revolution.

"Sidi Bouzid, which has suffered from marginalisation,
restored the dignity of all Tunisians," he said. "We have pledged to
restore the joy of life to these areas."

Tunisia's revolution has brought democratic freedoms for the
first time since independence from France in 1956.

But it has not so far tackled poverty and rampant
joblessness. In fact, the revolution has set back the economy by frightening
off some tourists and foreign investors.

Popular resentment over economic woes has boiled over into
rioting in several towns in recent weeks. Protesters set fire to some public
buildings and clashed with security forces.

"Honoring Sidi Bouzid is good but we need to work, only
jobs can restore our dignity. People here need bread, not a musical instrument
to entertain themselves," Nabila Abidi, an unemployed university graduate,
told Reuters in the town.

"The new government must understand the message well
and take care of us and improve our conditions. If not, the revolution will
return," said Mansour Amamou, another resident.

Tunisia's gross domestic product growth is forecast to drop
to about 0.2 percent in 2011 from 3 percent in the last year of Ben Ali's rule.
However, officials expect it to bounce back to 4.5 percent in 2012.

Unemployment, at 13 percent at the end of 2010, is now at
18.3 percent, according to central bank figures. The jobless rate among young
people is much higher.

Voters in October handed victory to the moderate Islamist Ennahda
party. A cabinet line-up is expected to be announced in coming days. The new
leaders will hold power for a year while a new constitution is drawn up and
fresh elections are prepared.

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