On 17 December 2010, Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire outside the governor’s office, despondent at being unable to earn money and provide for his family. His cries echoed around the Arab world, sparking protests against poor economic management and political autocracy. In Tunisia, popular demonstrations led to President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali stepping down after 23 years of rule, yet for other countries instability still reigns as the struggle for freedom continues.
What: Self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi
When: 17 December 2010
Where: Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia
Mohamed Bouazizi was a 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor originally from the village of Sidi Salah. His father had died when he was three and he was educated alongside his six siblings in a small room in his home village. He left his education in his early teens in order to provide for his family, but had always dreamed of completing high school. He supported his mother, uncle and younger siblings, including paying for one of his sisters to attend university, by earning approximately $140 per month selling produce on the street in the nearby town of Sidi Bouzid. According to his family, he had also applied to join the army, but was rejected.
Friends of Bouazizi said that he was a friendly and sociable man who, despite his own difficult situation, was always keen to help others, often known for giving free fruit and vegetables to poor families. However he was targeted and harassed by police officers for years, and frequently had his produce confiscated.
In December 2010 Bouazizi was some $200 in debt when he was stopped by the police, reportedly for not having the necessary permit to sell his products; the head of Sidi Bouzid’s state office for employment later claimed that no permit is needed to sell from a cart in Tunisia. He was publicly humiliated by a female police officer, later identified as Faida Hamdy, who reportedly slapped him in the face, spat at him, confiscated his electronic weighing scales and pushed over his cart.
Bouazizi then went to the governor’s office to request that his scales be returned to him; his appeal was denied and the governor refused to even see him, despite Bouazizi telling him, “If you don’t see me, I’ll burn myself.”
He was turned away and less than an hour after the altercation had occurred, he had returned to the governor’s office and in the crowded street outside shouted, “How do you expect me to make a living?” before dousing himself in petrol and setting himself alight.
Although people attempted to help Bouazizi, he had suffered 90 per cent burns on his body by the time they were able to put the flames out. He was rushed to a local hospital before being taken to a larger facility in Sfax, some 110 kilometres away. The news of his condition spread widely, such that the then Tunisian President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, even visited Bouazizi in hospital and, according to the young man’s mother, promised to send her son to France for treatment; no such transfer was ever arranged.
Bouazizi remained in a comatose state until his death 18 days later on 4 January 2011. Some 5,000 people attended his funeral, hailing him as a martyr and pledging to avenge his death.
What happened next?
Within hours of Bouazizi’s self-immolation, protests had started in Sidi Bouzid. Despite police attempts to stem the demonstrations, they continued for two weeks until his death, after which they spread throughout the country. Public frustrations that had long been quashed rose to the fore with protesters chanting for better governance, improved welfare and regime change. On 14 January 2011, the president and his family fled the country, ending Ben Ali’s 23-year rule, paving the way for elections and a new government.
No sooner had the winds of change swept across Tunisia, than protests across the region sprang up, but following significantly different trajectories.
Starting in Egypt, people poured into the streets across the country, with slogans such as “Bread, Freedom and Social Equality”. After 18 days of public demonstrations and violent repression, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down and the army suspended the constitution and the parliament, with a promise that the country would witness its first democratic election in its history. The next year, Dr Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was elected president by a substantial majority. This apparent success was short-lived, though; a military coup ousted President Morsi in 2013, with General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi overseeing the massacre of hundreds of protesters who demonstrated in support of the Brotherhood.
In Libya, protests across the country were met with violence, prompting demonstrators to arm themselves for their own protection and later form militia groups, signalling the start of a civil war. In March 2011, a NATO-led coalition intervened in Libya in an attempt to bring an end to the conflict. Although the death of former head of state Muammar Ghaddafi in October officially brought the revolution to an end, the country descended into chaos as rival governments emerged in the east and west, alongside attacks by Daesh militants. To date, Libya is struggling to unite its numerous factions and groups, with violent attacks continuing to take place across the country.
Demonstrations also started in Yemen in 2011, with tens of thousands of people protesting against the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. After Saleh stepped down, an election was held in 2012, won by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who was the only candidate. However the influential Houthi group in the north boycotted the elections, laying the foundations for the civil war that would start some three years later. The conflict in Yemen has now become the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
In Syria, peaceful protests in 2011 for reform and change were met with unprecedented violence from the government of President Bashar Al-Assad, with the revolution quickly descending into civil war. Iranian forces and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia entered the conflict in support of the Assad regime. Whilst opposition groups had secured much of the country in the initial years, the arrival of Daesh complicated the situation, with an international coalition launching an operation against the militants across Syria and Iraq. In 2015, Russia entered the conflict in support of the Syrian government, recapturing swathes of territory from the opposition. To date, over 500,000 people have been killed, and millions have been displaced.
In Bahrain, months of protests were quashed by government forces in a crackdown that left over 80 people dead and thousands arrested. More minor protests occurred in other countries throughout the region, prompting their governments to make policy changes in a bid to appease demonstrators, but stopping short of the systemic change actually demanded.
Some eight years later, the people of the Arab world face much the same challenges against which they had initially risen, with economic hardship and political suppression rampant. Even in Tunisia, the home of the revolution, the government has struggled to overcome political division, with the cabinet regularly being reshuffled amid a growing a list of ministers who have resigned or been sacked.
Despite this, Mohammed Bouazizi has come become a symbol of hope and strength for people across the region. The memory of his self-sacrifice lives on in their continued efforts for positive change.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.