Today, the “Arab Spring” turns one year old.
After months of violence, the Libyan people toppled Gaddafi, Yemen’s leader is working on a deal to leave power, protests continue in Bahrain, while Syria remains in chaos. Tunisia and Egypt toppled their leaders and both along with Morocco recently held elections.
Who could have guessed a year ago that people would topple regimes, hunt down dictators, make presidents flee for their lives, and hold the the first democratic elections… and all of this inspired by the act of one single man: Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor who made $5-10 per day selling produce out of a wheelbarrow.
When Bouazizi was only three years old, his father, a construction worker in Libya, died of a heart attack. Bouazizi was only 10 years old when he became the primary breadwinner for his mother, his ill stepfather and five younger siblings.
As Bouazizi grew older, the people of his town—Sidi Bouzid—knew him as a friendly and generous young man who often gave free produce to poor families. Generous also to his own family, Bouazizi sacrificed his dreams so he could afford to put his younger siblings through school. Bouazizi always aspired to go to college and hold a job with more prestige and a higher salary than peddling his cart of produce. He applied to a number of positions including the Army, but—rejected—Bouazizi continued selling fruit and vegetables at the market to support his family.
Bouazizi’s difficulty finding a good-paying job was not out of the ordinary in Tunisia. In 2010, Tunisia suffered from an average unemployment rate of 14%, Sidi Bouzid reportedly endured a 30% unemployment rate, and in other towns similar to Sidi Bouzid in the interior of Tunisia, the unemployment rate for university graduates can reach 50%.
Since his childhood, Bouazizi endured regular harassment from local authorities and government officials about his cart, but on December 17, 2010 something changed.
Claiming he did not have the proper permit, officials harassed Bouazizi, confiscating his produce and his scale worth $100. After refusing a fine/bribe of around $7, one female official insulted Bouazizi and allegedly slapped him in the face in the middle of the public market.
Humiliated and angry, Bouazizi marched to local government headquarters and demanded to meet with an official to retrieve his $100 scale so he could continue selling produce. When the governor’s office refused to meet with him and hear his case, Bouazizi, angry and desperate, took drastic action.
He bought a can of fuel and doused himself. Standing in the middle of traffic in front of a government building, he asked, “How do you expect me to make a living?” and he lit himself on fire.
The act was horrifying, but many people related to this young man’s struggles.
This humble man leading a simple life, through one desperate act, galvanized the feelings of frustration, anger and desperation into inspiration and action for an entire country.
Maybe the revolutionary spark lit because his story is so familiar? Many knew a Bouazizi in their own town, and many saw a little Bouazizi in themselves.
Reposted from Voices of the Arab Spring on Tumblr