December 17 marks the eighth anniversary of what is called the “Arab Spring”, which started in Tunisia before spreading to the rest of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. It was on that day in 2010 that Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after a simple quarrel with a police officer, thus sparking the Tunisian (“Jasmine”) revolution and accidentally setting in motion an upheaval that continues to affect the entire region. Bouazizi died of his injuries in January 2011 without knowing what happened in his country and other states where millions like him shared similar difficulties such as a lack of freedom, state bureaucracy, corruption, economic hardships and chronic poverty.
Mohamed Bouazizi was a 26-year-old street vendor with limited access to the markets in his home town of Sidi Bouzid in central Tunisia; he sold fruit and vegetables to support his family. His encounter with corrupt police officers in the early afternoon on that fateful day was nothing new apart from the fact that it went too far. Police harassment and intimidation was part of the struggle that Bouazizi was used to. Tunisia at that time was run by corrupt and brutal security agencies which competed with each other.
The young man was one of many plying their wares on the streets of Tunisia, apparently without a licence (although local officials insisted later that no such licence was required). Such trading is common in the MENA region, with desperate young people, sometimes university graduates, having no jobs and left to their own devices to scrape a living. Who can question the legality of anything in societies, though, when they are headed by corrupt governments in which poverty is the common denominator for most people?
Bouazizi could have never imagined that his self-harming protest against a local injustice would lead to such shockwaves that went beyond the MENA region and inspired millions of people further afield. His name became associated with protests, people power, civil war, political change, foreign interference and a lengthy struggle that is ongoing in many Arab countries.
The uprising that followed his death forced Tunisia’s long time President, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, to flee to Saudi Arabia on 14 January, 2011. The people of Egypt started their own protests against equally long-serving President Hosni Mubarak, forcing him to resign two weeks later. While Bahrain quelled its own Arab Spring, thanks to Saudi Arabia’s military intervention, Libya, Syria and Yemen plunged into civil wars that have so far displaced millions, killed hundreds of thousands and brought destruction and misery to their people.
Seven years on and Tunisians seem to have trodden a sometimes difficult path to achieve an almost stable democracy, although it still suffers from economic difficulties and other social problems. Unemployment is estimated at about 15.5 per cent of the total work force in a population of less than 12 million people. Particularly dangerous is the unemployment among young people, at more than 35 per cent. The World Bank describes the youth unemployment in Tunisia as a “massive problem” facing the country.
Freedom of expression, including press freedom and freedom to gather in public, has flourished since the revolution. The economic and security situations, though, have worsened, forcing successive governments to allocate already scarce resources to tackle them.
Over the past five years, Tunisia has seen an average of one terror attack per year on tourist sites and government buildings, killing and wounding almost 200 people. Attacks on tourists hit the economy badly, as tourism is responsible for 10 per cent of jobs and the same percentage of Tunisia’s gross domestic product.
At the same time, more than 3,000 Tunisian nationals, both male and female, have moved to Syria, Iraq and neighbouring Libya to join terrorist groups such as Daesh and Al-Qaeda. Some of their children and the bodies of those killed are still stuck in a legal limbo in Libya as highlighted by MEMO in August.
Before 2011, Libya used to provide work for thousands of Tunisian labourers and access to its cheaper, heavily-subsidised consumer goods. Since the uprising which overthrew Muammar Gaddafi, however, Libya has been a source of trouble for its neighbours, Tunisia included. Employment opportunities in Libya and imports from its flourishing markets have all but dried up, with many young Tunisians, particularly near the border area, resorting to smuggling to make ends meet. The once flourishing market towns in southern Tunisia, such as Ras Jedar and Tatouine near the Libyan border, are now in a dire situation because they depended on Libya for work and trade. Protests are common whenever the border is closed for any reason.
The “Arab Spring” might have brought much needed change to Tunisia but it did not solve the economic woes which were the driving force behind the upheaval in the first place. In fact, civil unrest has driven away much-needed foreign investment. Instead of bringing prosperity and peace, there is now even more poverty, uncertainty, terrorism and western hegemony.
Mohamed Bouazizi could have had no idea of the impact of his self-immolation, so it is unfair to blame him for events in Tunisia, or even Libya and Syria. Nevertheless, the poor street vendor will always be associated with the “Arab Spring” and its consequences, both good and bad. In his home country, the Jasmine Revolution sparked off by his sacrifice has, it must be said, failed to deliver the economic prosperity and jobs that most Tunisians need desperately.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.