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 intrinsically corrupt. People always privately grumbled about this lack but were too smart or too fearful to do much in public. It took someone to strike a match to bring serious people power out on the street. That someone was Tunisian Mohammed Bouazizi and it was his search for dignity that 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. But by then the spark had already been lit. While Bouazizi lay dying in hospital, an impotent rage exploded across Tunisia. Hundreds of thousands had been victim to similar pettinesses at the hands of Abidine Ben Ali’s 23-year-old regime and rose in protest at his 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.
With winter still in full swing, Bouazizi gave birth to the Arab Spring. It is only the west that calls it 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.
The Labour unions quickly got on board. Inspired by the same need for dignity and respect, the country’s largest trade union, the normally pliant General Tunisian Workers’ Union (UGTT), mobilised its half million members in favour of the revolution. Top level officials previously loyal to Ben Ali changed their tune under pressure from members and a vibrant youth movement.
The tremors from the earthquake epicentre on Sidi Bouzid quickly spread across the region once Ben Ali was overthrown. Just 11 days later, there were massive protests in Cairo against the regime of Hosni Mubarak who had been in power for 30 years and about to effect a handover to his son Gemal. After three weeks of mass protest across the country, Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman announced Mubarak was handing over power to the military much 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.
Between Tunisia and Egypt lay Libya, complete with its own long-term dictator. Mad Muammar Gaddafi had clever held on to power for 40 years despite often being public enemy number one in the West. In the end it was his own people that dislodged him after a bitter and long-lasting war. Riots independent of Tunisia’s problems 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 still 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 made dozens of further arrests. Yet 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 same slogans heard in Tunisia and Egypt: the people want to bring down the regime.
It seemed to the watching world a third regime was about to quickly topple but Gaddafi had no intention of quitting gracefully. Those that did not love him deserved to die and he threw the full force of his armies on the rebels. Their majority support among the people was endangered by Gaddafi guns purchased from Western countries.
Perhaps inspired by guilt for this – or more likely for their own 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. But there is a good case to be made the protester was far from anonymous. Mohammed Bouazizi’s loss of dignity and death sacrifice was a pivotal “end of history” moment across the planet.