The great events in history did not need a time and place to make its presence felt. It was a moment born out of nothingness to become something extraordinary. The winds of change are sweeping across the Middle East and parts of North Africa as the world watches uncomfortably from the fringes of uncertainty. And to think it was in the dusty roads and modest dwellings of a small rural town in Tunisia that the fate of the world was unknowingly shaken by one ordinary man.
The times have been hard in Sidi Bouzid (Tunesia) as the cycle of poverty is perpetuated by rising food prices and an unemployment rate of almost 30%. The burden of a crumbling system echoes through the rampant corruption as people suppress their anguish and frustration to simply make it through the day. But as 26 years old street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi made his way through the market place on a the morning of 17th December 2010, he had little time to think about the state of affairs. All he wanted was to be allowed to make a living and take care of his family. It was a simple wish that seemed lost in the harshness of life in the streets of Sidi Bouzid.
The Police raided the area and confiscated Bouazizi handcart for reportedly not having a license. Adding insult to injury, Bouazizi was slapped by a female Municipal Officer F. Hamdi and then beaten by her two colleagues. The ordeal left Bouazizi troubled as he sought justice from the governor's office with no success. Then, in a moment of perhaps deep sense of helplessness and frustration, Bouazizi’s spirit broke and he set himself on fire to end the cycle of humiliation and misery.
The story would have ended here and like another tragedy simply become a statistic of a callous regime absorbed in its own benefit to pay any heed to the plight of its people. But Bouazizi’s death became a catalyst for a nation that had seen its aspirations slowly trampled by political repression and corruption time and again. As news of Bouazizi’s death spread through the street, long simmering resentment against oppression and injustice began to bear down on the fragile stability. The female officer was reportedly suspended along with the Governor. But a life had been lost and with it the patience of a nation that had simply tolerated enough .
The demonstration in Sidi Bouzid began to spread beyond the periphery of the town with the police opening fire on the peaceful protestors. The small nation of Tunisia was the perfect picturesque tourist destination, relatively peaceful and stable. But beneath the calm there was a restlessness as the 23 years iron fist rule President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was fraught by police brutality, lack of freedom and an elite class engulfed in vulgar excesses. The large majority of the urban and rural population felt left out of the prosperity of their nation with unemployment and poverty escalating as the economy buckled under the global recession.
Each passing day saw the situation in Tunisia intensify as anger mixed with emotions spilled onto the streets and the protestors marched in defiance to have their voices heard. Initially, the government felt it would be able to control the outburst. But as the protest turned violent and reached the Capital of Tunis despite the imposed night curfew, it seemed the beginning of the end as 78 people lost their lives and a world stood hesitant in its reaction.
The quick fix solution of the President to salvage the deepening crisis was simply to replace his unpopular interior minister and adopt some measures to deal with corruption and unemployment. But the cosmetic changes proved ineffective with the government soon being dismissed and a state of emergency declared. The President also announced that new parliamentary elections would take place in Tunisia within six months but refused to amend the constitution that would allow him to run for office again in 2014. The shift in policy clearly visible as a dusk-to-dawn curfew was imposed across the country. The security forces were given the power to shoot anyone found disobeying the ban of gathering in a group of more than three.
On 14th January, 2011 President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country with his family to seek refuge in Saudia Arabia. The path for a new unity government was set in motion with the parliamentary speaker Foued Mebazza taking over as the interim president and Mohammed Ghannouch as the new Prime Minister. However, the key position remained with ministers from the former regime sparking of new protest. In the meantime, Moncef Marzouki, CPR party leader and a critic of the former administration returned from exile in Paris after 20 years. As peace sets in cautiously across the country, sporadic violence continues as a reminder those in power that the people seek nothing less than greater economic and political changes
The death of Bouazizi and the subsequent demonstrations touched a nerve among the people in Tunesia and across the region that identified with the same sense of despair and desperation. The burden of economic hardship and corruption fuelled by autocratic regimes and lack of political voice has often steered the destiny of many nations in the Middle East and North Africa. The pent up dissatisfaction and anger waiting in the shadow to unleash at a given moment.
The fire of Tunisia has spread across countries like Jordan, Algeria, Yemen, Libya and Morocco similar uprisings have sent the government scurrying to address some of the pressing issues to calm the growing hostilities within their own borders. However, world attention has now shifted to Egypt where the streets of Alexandria and Cairo in particular where the sheer scale and determination of the people to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak 30 year old regime have been relentless. Like Bouazizi there have been similar cases of self-immolation here. Inspired by Tunisia, Egyptians took to the streets converging in Cairo’s Tahrir Square waving flags and chanting for change. Almost two week since the first march, President Mubarak has stood his ground and so have the anti-government protesters leading to a tense stand-off.
There is no doubt that it is history in the making as people’s resilience rises above adversity to be counted. It is truly admirable and courageous, but the question is how much of this upheaval is going to translate into real concrete change remains to be seen and of course the ramifications for the rest of the world. The uncertainly of the future has very little bearing on the mood of the people. There is a frenzied excitement and nervousness all around at the beginning of a new period in the region’s political history. And yet, after all the strength to bring about change there is no guarantee that succeeding governments will not have its limitations and be equally corrupt and despotic. As the English novelist Enoch Arnold Bennett articulately wrote: “Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts.” The hope lies in a generation that no longer wishes to be silent spectators as leaders crush their dreams and aspirations to a better future.
Ironically, Mohamed Bouazizi did not set out to change the world. But his immolation mirrored the agony and desperation of people striving to break from the shackles of repression. In life, Bouazizi was just one of the many faces but in death his name is etched in the pages of history as the man who changed the fate of his nation and perhaps the world.
Image © Tomasz Szymanski
Mausoleum of Habib Bourgiba, the first President of the Republic of Tunisia
By arrangement with Global Times Magazine