A Year of Revolt: In memory of Mohammed Bouazizi

Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book The End of History and The Last Man was misinterpreted as a triumph for democracy in the wake of the fall of western communism. It was easy to laugh at him being hopelessly wrong when the New World Order collapsed in the late 1990s and new enemies appeared to replace old bugbears. Yet the “end of history” Fukuyama spoke about was the foremost importance of dignity in life not the success of democracy. This thesis was right then and remains true today. Democracy has massive failings but it offers the dignity of revenge against oppressive or incompetent rulers in the promise of a future ballot box.

The Eastern European revolutions of the 1980s understood this as do today’s democracy-deprived Arab World. Societies dominated by single parties and long-term dictators are almost always corrupt. It took someone to strike a match to bring people power out on the street. That someone was Tunisian Mohammed Bouazizi and his search for dignity began a worldwide revolution. When authorities took away Bouazizi’s vegetable cart because it was unlicensed and then slapped and humiliated him when he paid the fine, they unleashed consequences that would not just wipe away the certainties of their world, but also of our world. Because Bouazizi was “humiliated and dejected”, he set fire to himself outside a Sidi Bouzid police station on December 17.  The burns were horrific but Bouazizi did not die straight away. After 18 agonising days, he died on 4 January 2011, almost exactly a year ago. While Bouazizi lay dying in hospital, an impotent rage exploded across Tunisia. Hundreds of thousands suffered similar pettinesses at the hands of Abidine Ben Ali’s 23-year regime and rose in protest at Bouazizi’s treatment. An alarmed Ben Ali visited the dying man in hospital but it was too late for both of them. Bouazizi died a week later and Ben Ali was out of power just 10 days after that.In the west it is called the Arab Spring, in the affected countries it is the Sidi Bouzid Revolt in honour of his hometown. Bouazizi’s enraged relatives, friends and acquaintances were first to take to the streets in support of his act of mad defiance.

Labour unions quickly got on board. The country’s largest trade union, the normally pliant General Tunisian Workers’ Union mobilised its half million members in favour of the revolution. Top officials loyal to Ben Ali changed their tune under pressure from members and a vibrant youth movement.

The tremors from Sidi Bouzid quickly spread across the region once Ben Ali was overthrown. Eleven days later, there were massive protests in Cairo against the regime of Hosni Mubarak in power for 30 years and about to effect a handover to his son Gemal. After three weeks of mass protest, Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman announced Mubarak was handing over power to the military to the joy of the Tahrir Square protesters. But their joy was short-lived with the military junta showing no signs of wanting to share power and the protests continue a year later.

In Libya Muammar Gaddafi held on to power for 40 years despite often being public enemy number one in the West. His own people dislodged him after a bitter and long-lasting war. Riots were happening in Benghazi in January over chronic housing shortages but Gaddafi threw Libyan oil money at the problem to quieten the Benghazi protesters.

Those riots were fresh in the mind at the end of the month when dissident writer Jamal al-Hajji issued an Internet call for demonstrations across Libya “in the Tunisian and Egyptian fashion”. Al-Hajji was arrested in early February and Gaddafi issued a warning to political activists, journalists and media figures to behave.

When Libyan lawyer Fatih Turbel was arrested in Benghazi on 15 February, police broke up protests and arrested dozens more. The riots spread quickly through the east and a Day of Rage two days later shook the regime to its core. Within 24 hours, rebel forces controlled Benghazi. In the first week they pushed east to Misrata and Tobruk fell in yet another war. The rebels shouted the slogans heard in Tunisia and Egypt: the people want to bring down the regime.

A third regime was about to topple but Gaddafi had no intention of quitting gracefully. He threw the full force of his armies on the rebels. Their majority support was endangered by Gaddafi guns purchased from Western countries.

Perhaps inspired by guilt – or political expediency – David Cameron and Nicholas Sarkozy pushed for intervention to save the revolution. Obama, already stretched by two wars in Islamic states, was harder to convince but eventually NATO airpower swung the pendulum back in the rebels favour. Tripoli fell in August and Gaddafi was butchered in October. Cameron and Sarkozy were heralded as heroes in Libya and Tunisia’s Burning Man had played a small part in overthrowing a third tyrant.

Bouazizi also indirectly or directly inspired protests in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Palestine and Yemen with varying degrees of success. Bouazizi could well claim two more leaders this year in Saleh in Yemen and Asad in Syria. The Arab Spring template was closely watched by many in the western world and played a symbolic role in the Occupy movement. Time Magazine, with eyes on both phenomena, called the anonymous protester its person of the year. Mohammed Bouazizi’s loss of dignity and death sacrifice was a pivotal “end of history” moment across the planet.


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