Just over a year ago, on December 17th 2010, a Tunisian fruit and vegetable seller, Mohammed Bouazizi, set himself on fire. The act of desperation, in front of the police headquarters of the poor town of Sidi Bouzid, left Mohammed in a coma, and eventually he died. His story has been repeated again and again, with varying degrees of accuracy.
In the tradition of building a character up only to knock them down, Bouazizi’s memory has taken several attacks since his death. Whether it’s 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 aren’t an exaggeration.
Bouazizi apparently wasn’t interested in politics, he was merely a man attempting to provide for his family and couldn’t bear the loss of his dignity.
While the focus of re-tellings of the Bouazizi story is on the disputed slap, the real crux of the matter was economics. As detailed in this fantastic piece at 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, a pick up truck and a permanent stand at the wholesale market.
Instead, on December 17th 2010, his good were seized, including his electronic scale, worth $225. For a man who’s weekly income of $73 barely stretched to meet the needs of his family of 8, 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 can’t 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 years to acquire the little he had had? How did his country allow this injustice to carry on, where people like himself didn’t 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 shouldn’t be celebrated or remembered in a positive way; that he isn’t 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 had a university education, others no education at all. It makes no difference in these countries, if you don’t know the right people, there’s no chance of 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, better off, would find hard to understand. To at least try and comprehend the situation, it’s necessary to go to Arab countries, especially outside the oil-rich Gulf, see the poverty, and what’s more, the huge gap between the lives of the rich and poor. Bouazizi was not an inspiration for legions of Arab youth to burn themselves, but more to say ‘enough is enough’ and break the barriers of fear that had been erected in their societies.
Bouazizi could have lived in Morocco, Egypt, Sudan, Iraq or Yemen. People who live the life he led exist across the region. But now, thanks to him, they don’t have to end their lives thinking that they can’t change anything. Bouazizi’s country now has a President who was called a ‘dreamer’, a mere year and a half a go, for suggesting that Arab regimes could fall. Arab youth have seen that there is another way. Sure, it’ll take a long time, but it has been proved that these leaders are not invincible. Things can change.
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East
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