Tomorrow Tunisia will commemorate Mohammed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian fruit seller whose self immolation one year ago tomorrow sparked revolutions across the region. While myths abound (see here, and here) about Bouazizi, the origins of civil disobedience in Tunisia’s restive south, and his true motivations – he remains a powerful symbol of the price Tunisians paid during the 23 years of Ben Ali’s dictatorship. Bouazizi embodies the breakdown under Ben Ali in the relationship between the governed and the government and his story remains at the heart of Tunisia’s new experiment in democracy.
I first heard of Bouazizi on New Year’s Day 2011, nearly two weeks after his immolation. I had recently arrived in Tunisia and had heard about the protests that took place in the south of the country – but had not thought too much of it. Under this deeply authoritarian regime it was a bit surprising to hear about protests, but it was not unheard of, especially in the region around Sidi Bouzid, Gafsa, and Kesserine – which have long been subject to strikes, social movements and revolts, and tribal rivalries.
Not only was Bouazizi’s story shocking, my Tunisian hosts, who told me the story, had a telling reaction. My friends typified the Tunisian middle class in many ways, they concerned themselves with their work and their families, never delving into the domain of politics. They hated the Trabelsi’s and their kleptocratic ways, but they appreciated the security of Ben Ali’s regime. With two daughters, they appreciated that they were able to get a good education – one was working in France, the other in a local store. When they heard about Bouazizi they were horrified and completely sympathetic. They were also worried about the protests going on, which had by that point spread to Sousse, Ben Ali’s hometown and Tunisia’s third city.
As I became more engaged in the news, it became clear that the events surrounding Bouazizi represented everything that Tunisian’s hated about the regime. Ben Ali’s visit to Bouazizi in the hospital before his death appeared only as a photo op, lacking humanity or understanding. The government’s pledge to create jobs seemed outlandish. Its declarations for regional growth were seen as little more than propaganda from the politburo. And the idea of decentralization was clearly unrealistic given Ben Ali’s highly centralized, authoritarian control structure.
The uprising in Tunisia, as in many revolutions of the Arab Spring, was broad based. Support came not only from Bouazizi’s region, but from students, young people, the unemployed, and professionals from all walks of life. For both protesters and onlookers alike, Bouazizi reflected every failure of Tunisian society. Since independence, the first president of Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, had emphasized education as the fundamental way Tunisia could modernize and prosper. Investment in education was seen by many as the governments most important social program and the ticket for Tunisians to a more prosperous life. With Ben Ali, economic liberalization and opportunity became the motto du jour.
While Ben Ali nominally had the same philosophy as Bourguiba, his commitment to improving educational standards was suspect. In a country that used to see its doctors and nurses, engineers and businessmen in demand at home and in Europe, increasingly, Tunisian diplomas were not being recognized by European governments. Coupled with tighter immigration standards from the European Union, the release valve Tunisia had relied on to help check its demographic pressures was no longer available. Even educated Tunisians looking to emigrate could expect low wages and an unwelcome population on the other side of the Mediterranean. Many Tunisian universities were becoming diploma mills for degrees that were no longer in demand, while secondary education was not meeting a growing demand for skilled laborers, such as plumbers and welders.
But it didn’t end with education. Entrepreneurs were increasingly punished under Ben Ali. If you ran a successful business, the family would demand ownership. If you were a taxi cab driver, your permit would be renewed only if you bought a car from a Trabelsi dealership. If you were a civil servant, you were obligated to take out loans from one of the Trabelsi owned banks. While the government touted economic growth figures, the average Tunisian increasingly felt marginalized.
The two things the regime touted, education and economic opportunity were no longer the keys to success under Ben Ali. The social contract was breaking.
Tunisians saw in Bouazizi a young man who had played by the rules of the game. He graduated from high school (some say university – though this part is unclear), a sign of his commitment to society and desire for employment. And yet despite his education, he was a fruit seller – a clandestine one at that. But even in this modest job – the police confiscated his stand and humiliated him.
In this young society, less than 60 years from independence, even well-off Tunisians are rarely far removed from le bled – the country side. Bouazizi touched the hearts of a country that was seeing its sons and daughters play by the rules, submitting to Ben Ali’s strict authoritarianism, and still not being able to achieve economic independence.
As protests grew throughout the month of December, the government cracked down and spewed propaganda. But it was all just a little too much. The paternalism of Ben Ali rang hollow. If he was so committed to the country, why would young men be humiliated and forced to such extreme measures as Bouazizi was?
State controlled television portrayed the protesters as vandals and Ben Ali as the nation’s guarantor of stability. This contrasted with images and accounts of the police using live-ammunition against peaceful protesters. But while extensive censorship allowed the government to propagate this narrative, the story of Bouazizi kept spreading – and the government had no good responses. Bouazizi’s selflessness in the face of injustice was the recurring image Tunisians came back to.
Of course it wasn’t Bouazizi that caused the uprising. The Tunisian uprising was the result of years of struggle by all facets of Tunisian society. No where is this embodied more than in the two leaders of the new Tunisian government. Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali languished for 16 years in a Tunisian jail cell for his involvment in the Islamist party Ennahdha, while President Moncef Marzouki was exiled for most of his life for support for human rights and basic liberties. Behind these figures are thousands of activists who risked their lives over the years.
However, Bouazizi was able to accomplish what no activist had been able to – he captured the hearts of Tunisians. Bouazizi brought home to every Tunisian the reality of what the Ben Ali government had become, brutal kleptocrats. Bouazizi represented the betrayal of Tunisia’s social contract by the Ben Ali regime. By exposing the regime for what it was, Bouazizi unleashed the energy of all the forces of Tunisian society, both the activists and non-activists alike. He was a real Tunisian, with real problems, and he could not take it any longer. Neither could the Tunisian people.
On the occasion of this tragic event, there is a sweetness to know that Bouazizi’s tragic act was not in vain and will be remembered.