Striking Flint Against Steel

Why a suicide galvanized a region’s rebirth

The name Mohamed Bouazizi ought to mean nothing. But Bouazizi, a poorly educated Tunisian street peddler, rightfully belongs in the class of history’s Jeffersons, Marxes, and Mandelas. Yet whereas those revolutionaries inspired revolutions with their ideas or ability to organize action, Bouazizi catalyzed a revolution through the only act that could aptly symbolize its lonely desperation—self-immolation.

On Dec. 17, 2010 26 year-old Bouazizi, in protest of the confiscation of his wares, poured gasoline on his body, and lit a match. He died 17 days later in a hospital bed. Ten days afterwards, Tunisian President Zine Ben Ali became a permanent resident of Saudi Arabia. Bouazizi’s final words before lighting himself on fire were not Georges-Jacques Danton’s haughty “Thou wilt show my head to the people; it is worth showing” or William Wallace’s bold “Freedom!” but instead were the banal “How do you expect me to make a living?”

Future sociologists will notice that the most recurrent metaphor in the media for the Arab Spring was a wave crashing or an explosion. Both imply an unsustainable rise of tension eventually coalescing into a thunderous social movement. This prescribes far too much inevitability to the event. Without Bouazizi, our Western “experts” on the region may still be happily repeating their forty-year-old conventional truths about the region’s supposedly systemic and stubborn authoritarianism. There was nothing inevitable in the Arab Spring, but there were conditions, both recent and ancient, that made revolution possible. Not coincidentally, the story of Mohamed Bouazizi is a fitting place to begin to understand the Arab Spring.

By multiple accounts, Mohamed Bouazizi lived modestly. He cared for an extended family and barely met the costs of living by selling vegetables from an unlicensed cart. He was frustrated with his poverty and he was not alone. Although Tunisia’s Gross Domestic Product rose from 2008 to 2010, Tunisians’ perceptions of their own economic wellbeing dropped during the same period.

State services are, like in most of the Arab world, quite expansive, and reliance on state-provided housing and healthcare remains  despite their poor condition. Over the one-year period from 2009 to 2010 the satisfaction rates in Tunisia for housing and healthcare collapsed from 74 percent to 41 percent and 71 percent to 51 percent respectively. Clearly, an internal bureaucratic collapse precipitated the susceptibility of Tunisians to revolution. Bouazizi rushed to the governor’s office after the confiscation of his food scales. He lit himself on fire only when he felt mistreated by the government and his finals words were aimed directly at the government. This is only an indication of how high expectations for the distribution of state services could no longer be met thanks to shifts in demographics and a stagnant domestic and global economy

Mohamed Bouazizi also reflects an equally troubling problem of the Middle East—a failure to tap youth potential. Unsurprisingly, there appears to be a fairly strong positive correlation between those countries where youth felt their country “maximized youth potential” and the numbers of riots. According to a Silatech Index-Gallup study conducted last year, 77 percent of Egyptians are unhappy with the number of quality and available jobs and 69 percent of young Arabs say they are dissatisfied with government efforts to ameliorate unemployment. Poignantly, although the number of Arabs who prefer government employment to private employment is high—52 percent versus 23 percent—young Americans are more likely to have a favorable opinion of entrepreneurs than any other region. Those are the statistics of a broken system.

During Tunisia’s riots in January, a platitude among Middle East analysts was that Tunisia, with its wealthy and educated elite, was more prone than the rest of the Arab World to political liberalization. But, Bouazizi never graduated from high school and the town of Sidi Bouzid was no bastion of high education or wealth. Much smaller protests had occurred in Tunisia before the events of this year. Most upper class and educated Tunisians, even those that passionately desire a freer Tunisia, had too much to lose by demanding change. Change occurred when the Bouazizis of Tunisia realized it could.

This situation repeated itself across the Arab world. For decades, the educated and wealthy elites have organized pathetically small protests. The political awakening of an upset and unemployed lower class was the true impetus and guide for the Arab Spring. Perhaps rebirth is a more fitting term than awakening. After all, the period of decolonization begun by the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 already merits the distinction of being the Arab lower classes’ first true political awakening. But, in many cases, expectations were not met and local tyrants replaced distant tyrants.

To view the Arab Spring as inevitable or amorphous is to fail to prepare for a safer and freer future. Demographic, economic, and youth-related issues remain regardless of who holds political authority. Although Bouazizi can no longer play a political role, the awakened lower class can and must. Otherwise, Bouazizi will mean nothing.

Eric T. Justin ‘13 is a social studies concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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