The twelve months following the death of Mohammed Bouazizi have proven that the leaders of the Arab world are not invincible and that change is indeed possible. Over one year ago, on December 17th 2010, a Tunisian fruit and vegetable seller, Mohammed Bouazizi, set himself on fire. This act of desperation, in front of the police headquarters in the poor town of Sidi Bouzid, left Bouazizi in a coma and eventually led to his death. His story has been repeated again and again, with varying degrees of accuracy. In the tradition of building a character up only to knock it down, Bouazizi’s memory has taken several attacks since his death. Whether it is from Tunisians resentful of the attention his family has received, or religious puritans failing to comprehend the mental state of someone committing suicide, the detractors have made themselves heard. Cliches are in abundance when it comes to Bouazizi. He is the ‘flame’, the ‘spark’ and the ‘butterfly effect’. For once, the cliches are not an exaggeration. Bouazizi apparently was not interested in politics -- he was merely a man attempting to provide for his family and could not bear the loss of his dignity. While the focus of re-tellings of the Bouazizi story is on the disputed slap from a female government officer, the real crux of the matter was the pursuit of material opportunity. As stated by Hernando De Soto in an article for Foreign Policy, Bouazizi wanted “to earn a living for his family and to accumulate capital.” His mother explained that “people like Mohammed are concerned with doing business.” He wanted the things that would help his enterprise, which was a pick-up truck and a permanent stand at the wholesale market. Instead, on December 17th 2010, his goods were seized, including his electronic scale, worth $225. For a man whose weekly income of $73 barely stretched to meet the needs of his family of eight, this was catastrophic. Added to this, his confrontation with the police meant that he lost the regular spot where he sold his goods. All in all, he had lost his livelihood. Within minutes he had lost the little he had managed to gain from years of effort and hard work. I cannot pretend to know what went through his head after this. I imagine there to have been mixed feelings of despair, humiliation, and a huge fear of what was to come next. How would he provide for his family, who only had him to rely on? How would he set about purchasing new equipment and goods, when it had taken him many years to acquire the little he had? How did his country allow this injustice to carry on, where people like himself did not have much chance of progressing in life, even if they worked hard. He set himself on fire, and because of this, some have suggested that he should not be celebrated or remembered in a positive way -- that he is not a martyr. The reaction of Arab youth is the perfect response to these out of touch claims. The perceived ‘martyrdom’ of Bouazizi resonated not just in Tunisia, but in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen in the aftermath of his death. Some of these young people have a university education, others no education at all. It makes no difference in these countries -- if you do not have the right connections, there is little chance of finding a job. Bouazizi’s act resonated with the largely poor youth of the Arab world. They understood immediately why he had committed his act, something that others who are financially better off find hard to understand. To at least try and comprehend the situation, it is necessary to go to Arab countries - especially outside the oil-rich Gulf - and see the poverty, and more significantly, the large gap between the lifestyle of the rich and poor. Bouazizi was not an inspiration for legions of Arab youth to burn themselves, but rather a voice who said ‘enough is enough’ and an inspiration to break the barriers of fear that had been erected in their societies. Bouazizi could have lived in Morocco, Egypt, Sudan, Iraq, or Yemen, and there are thousands of people who lead the same type of life. However, they no longer have to end their lives thinking that they cannot change their future. Tunisia now has a President who was called a ‘dreamer’ a mere year and a half ago, for suggesting that Arab regimes could fall. Indeed, the Arab youth have seen that there is another way. It will surely take a long time to achieve everlasting change, but it has been proved that these autocratic leaders are not invincible. *[A version of this article was originally published by Comment Middle East on December 19, 2011].
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