Monday, January 30, 2012

So Who Was Mohammed Bouazizi?

By: Jill Ricotta
Photo Courtesy of: Foreign Policy Magazine

Since 2011 came to a close, it is safe to declare that the biggest event of the year was undoubtedly the Arab Spring.
The world refocused its attention on the region and analysts scrambled to understand how so many seemingly invincible dictators found themselves so vulnerable. Although Egypt and Libya quickly became the stars of the show in the media's eyes, Tunisia remains just as important, if not more so. Many political scientists have described the small Mediterranean country as the area's greatest hope for democracy. Yet, as interesting as all the latest developments are (Islamists, I'm looking at you), the beginning of this supposed wave of change is still vitally important to understating the future of the region.

The story is well-known in the Arab world, but perhaps less so in other parts of the world. On December 17th, Mohammed Bouazizi was struggling to stay alive. He sold fruit at a stand in Sidi Bouzid, a city in the south of Tunisia where he was born and raised. His mother has said that "the $73 dollars he earned each week was the family's main source of income." Since the family consisted of seven people, this was quite a responsibility resting on Bouazizi's shoulders. However, each day he was plagued by the corruption that was all too common in Ben Ali's Tunisia. Often, police officers and inspectors would help themselves to fruits and vegetables while arbitrarily fining sellers. But on that fateful day, a female inspector named Fedia Hamdi and some of her colleagues took too much from Bouazizi. They "confiscated" two crates of pears, one crate of bananas, three crates of apples and most importantly his electronic scale. Bouazizi had saved up for years to buy this scale and would never be able to run his business without it. To make matters worse, Hamdi reportedly slapped Bouazizi in front of the entire marketplace. She has since contested this accusation.

Bouazizi and his uncle tried to get his scale back by appealing to the governors office. Unfortunately, as often is the case in the Arab world, he was met by a bureaucratic run around that would make Americans actually appreciate the DMV. It became all too clear to him that he had lost his only conceivable way to keep his family from starving. Infuriated and hopeless, he went to the local store, grabbed a container of paint thinner, doused himself in it and proceeded to light himself on fire. Before doing so, he reportedly yelled out "How do you expect me to make a living like this?" Thus, a political martyr was born. A month later, Ben Ali was fleeing the country in to the safety of Saudi Arabia.

So, more than a year later, why is this young man still important to the region? Of course, in Tunisia, he is now a hero. Young activists wear t-shirts with his face on it, statues have been erected in his honor, and you can even find yourself a Bouazizi stamp. Although he himself was not particularly political, his story rings very true for the millions of young Arabs living around the region, who understand his situation. The Arab world is incredibly young. For example, the percentage of Tunisians that are between the ages of 1 and 14 is 23.2%, with Egypt coming in at 32.7% and Yemen at an amazing 43%. For comparison's sake, the USA has a figure of 20%. Needless to say, there were many young Arabs that before 2011, were incredibly frustrated with living under a corrupt dictator all their lives. Unemployment is a huge problem across the region with the young workforce on the streets more often then on the job. So for the young Tunisians and other Arabs after them, Bouazizi's story was all too familiar.

Yet despite the inspiring protests that swept the region, it remains to be seen whether or not the Arab youth has benefited from the so-called Arab Spring. There has been so much chaos in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya (not to mention Syria) that the economies in these countries and others have plummeted. It will take years for them to recover. In December 2011, Le Monde published an article filled with interviews with Sidi Bouzid locals who complained that life had not become easier since Bouazizi's death. One cyber café owner said the price of gas had doubled, along with other commodities. The only thing that had changed was the police were a lot less present. Professor Lamine Bouazizi (no relation) stated: "It's our fault, we haven't forced the institutions to change. The revolution stayed in the streets and the activists never got involved (translated from French)."

Only time will tell whether or not the economic status of the underprivileged Arab youth will ever actually change or whether the revolutions that so inspired the world will actually bring about progress for the people that marched in the protests. But so far, it seems the youth of the Arab world will still have to fight tooth and nail for the opportunity to make a living.

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