The Bouazizi ‘big bang’

A year ago, a Tunisian street vendor lit himself on fire in an act of desperate defiance – sparking the Arab Spring.

mohamed bouazizi
Mohamed Bouazizi is considered to be the spark that ignited the Arab Spring [GALLO/GETTY]

It was an act of self-immolation that would change the course of Arab political history. That is the significance of Mohamed Bouazizi one year on. It will be years before December 17, 2010 and the subsequent chain of events his act set off in Tunisia – and later on across the Arab world – are profoundly grasped by historians and social scientists.

The man and the act spawned a hugely unprecedented movement, forever altering the Arab political landscape, delivering the much-vaunted ‘breakthrough’ in the fight against autocracy.

That breakthrough was akin to an inexplicable ‘big bang’ which created its own chain reaction, irreversibly converting singularity into plurality across an emerging Arab Spring geography.

The indomitable Bouazizi lives on…

Theoretically, Bouazizi lacked the kind of pedigree that qualifies one entry into history books. He had no wider horizon beyond being a street vendor. He was not elite – his family was modest in every sense – and his town was on the margins of Tunisia both politically and economically. In fact, Tunisians living in the coastal areas and the north knew very little of the central and southern regions.

This ‘south’ was treated as if it were an empty space. It never was. Tunisians read the country’s luminary Abu al Qasim al Chabbi, the poet whose verse about ‘popular will’ Bouazizi translated into an astonishingly practical act.

Partly, this was what motivated me to visit his place of burial in my first trip back to Tunisia back in January 2011 after Bin Ali’s ouster. Bouazizi – not Ghannushi in London, not Merzouki in Paris – and not the rest of us polyglots, university-educated and bi-national Tunisians in the Diaspora – precipitated that ouster with his indomitable will when he chose to protest against humiliation and marginalisation.

I was not alone. Rather, Bouazizi was not alone. There were Tunisians and non-Tunisians visiting to pay homage to a modest individual that took a stand not knowing it would alter the oppressive dynastic and undemocratic status quo of an entire region. On the site, several high school pupils from a neighbouring town spoke of him as a saviour and hero. Deservedly, his place in Tunisia’s history books is set in stone. Graffiti in many Tunisian towns and cities still read ‘Martyr Bouazizi’ or ‘Mohamed Bouazizi Square’.

I recall making mental notes of why his individual act of self-immolation was an enactment of a public good. Bouazizi had the kind of energy that was just awaiting a detonator. When it came, he protested by staging a public suicidal act. It was an act of violence (involving only self-harm) and non-violence which he deliberately displayed opposite the town’s seat of power, in a public street and in broad daylight.

Bouazizi intended his act of lunacy and courage to be a public signal of resistance and disobedience. It was live political theatre in which he tragically played out his own death with a message: for Tunisians to free themselves from their oppressive predicament was to resist or face his fate.

Bouazizi’s message was decoded rightly and the rest is history: quietism no more. In his burial place, Ali Ben Ghdahem came to mind, another revolutionary from the mid-19th century, from the Majer tribes adjacent to Bouazizi’s region. The south, I thought, could not be an ’empty space’ – not when it produced individuals who knew when to measure up to the call of history. And Bouazizi was one of them.

There, near Bouazizi’s nondescript grave, the powerful image of non-violent resistance and indomitable will converged upon me in the form of the memorable tank-man – that silhouette of a brave Chinese man who brought to a halt a column of menacing tanks during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Just as the image of tank-man defined the dying years of the 20th century, Bouazizi’s identical courage stamped the opening years of the 21st.

Bouazizi is in the good company of like-minded individuals whose actions cumulatively help one piece together some of the clues as to why and how an individual of their perigee can rise above the ordinary when the surrounding environment favours change. As these individuals such as Khalid Said (Egypt), Fathi Tarbil (Libya) and Hamza al-Khatib (Syria) were, so were their stories of courage to resist when it mattered most. They seized the moment, and history seized them within its chronicles.

One year on…

On this day one year ago, Zaba (Bin Ali) and the Trabelsis were ensconced in the glut of absolute power and corruption. Sakher al Matri was expanding his wealth by millions each day. His pet tiger ‘Pasha’ ate more meat a month than thousands of marginals in Gafsa and Sidi Bouzid would in a year. The monthly expenses of fuel for his multiple luxury automobiles, including a Hummer, equaled the payroll of entire cleaning firms employing quasi ‘slave workers’ who lived in the slums surrounding Tunis, Sousse and other big cities.

The writing was on the wall and I wrote in my AJE column in September 2010 about ‘Bin Ali the last Bey’ of Tunisia. When I wrote about ‘dynastic republicanism’ in November 2009, I was engaging in a prognosis of a situation of absolute power and corruption screaming for attention in Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Gamal and Saif al Islam are in prison, and Ahmed Saleh in Yemen will not inherit power from his father – who gave up power recently.

Some of the credit will always be due to Bouazizi and the Tunisian revolution, and so say and recognise the revolutionaries and protesters from Benghazi to Sanaa.

On this day, December 17, 2011, the Syrian National Council is deliberating in Tunis, a totally transformed capital where free speech and free and fair elections have demolished long-held stereotypes about Arab inhospitality to good government. In the elected Tunisian Constituent Assembly and the various independent commissions sit former political inmates and exiles. That is a subversion of the Arab power paradigm that only the word ‘revolution’ captures. That was unimaginable a mere 12 months ago.

Egypt is on its way to new greatness, and the brilliance of its elections and protesters alike solidify this historically unstoppable trajectory towards indigenous ‘workshops’ of sustainable democratisation and participative governance. The beacon of hope in all of this is the potential for a cumulative savoir-faire (know-how) and savoir etre (identity) that proves infectious in the entire Arab region – including the Gulf.

Bouazizi’s staying ‘effect’

The Arab Spring fervour that sprang in Bouazizi’s home town and country has spread further afield in the Arab world, making possible dreams of dignity and freedom which are today palpably catapulting the Arabs into democratic openings. The uprisings and still unfolding revolutions were made by the Arab world’s little peoples. Their greatness, like Bouazizi, lies in their capacity for self-sacrifice in the quest for dignity.

Very few of them will make it to the newly elected Arab houses of power. Their presence and voice will always count in the public gymnasiums of open, non-violent and effective resistance from below. Gone the days when ‘power’ and ‘authority’ happen not under the direct gaze and scrutiny of the public gymnasiums. Just as they ousted Bin Ali, Mubarak, Gaddafi and Saleh, they can and will oust the Assad’s.

All Arabs are breathing in the air of freedom which is expanding the appetite for equal citizenship. They are out of the tunnel. They are more comfortable with their ‘Arabhood’ than they were 12 months ago. For they have discovered that fellow human beings from Barzil to Sydney champion their struggles and applaud their courage and sacrifices, and some even stage their own protests inspired by the fervour and hope they have generated.

Maybe the Bouazizi ‘big bang’ is yet to strike again in the future to shake off the relics of power in many a gilded palace. When it does, it will be remembered that its seeds came from the fruits of Sidi Bouzid’s vendor.

May he forever rest in peace!

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratisation: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004), forthcoming Hamas and the Political Process (2011).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.