The Arab Spring Is Just The Beginning – The Real Revolution Is Still To Come

bouazizi

The man who started a revolution. Bouazizi’s image held up by his mother. Courtesy: BBC.

“How do you expect me to make a living?” screamed street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi as he stood in the middle of the traffic, doused his body in fuel and set himself alight in front of the elegant whitewashed square-arched gateway of the mayor’s office in the bustling Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid.

People in the street that December morning in 2010 panicked as Bouazizi exploded into flame, a human torch, still walking. There was no fire extinguisher nearby. Someone poured water onto his flaming body in a futile attempt to put out the blaze. Instead of suppressing the fire, the water mixed with the burning liquid and helped to spread the flames.

A crowd quickly gathered round to see what was happening. Bouazizi was now ablaze from head to toe and by this point he was on his hands and knees, a scorched and blackened crawling silhouette of a man. By the time an ambulance arrived, the young man was on the ground, unconscious and suffering from third degree burns to most of his body.

Later that same day, two relatives of the injured Bouazizi, Rocdi Horchani and Ali Bouazizi, posted some mobile phone video onto Facebook that showed a peaceful protest outside of the mayor’s offices where Bouazizi had set himself alight; the video was immediately aired on Al Jazeera’s Mubasher channel. A revolution had started.

Bouazizi was not seeking to cause revolution

Bouazizi would survive for three weeks in hospital before succumbing to his awful injuries, aged just 26. His flaming protest was the spark that would ignite the Tunisian revolution and trigger the Arab Spring.

Yet Bouazizi was not seeking to cause revolution. He was just trying to make ends meet, trying to make a living, to run a small business in the face of a stifling state bureaucracy. Bouazizi’s self-immolation may have ignited a string of uprisings against Arab autocrats but Bouazizi was actually demanding something far more fundamental than the need for democracy: Bouazizi was protesting about the right to feed his family without the state getting in the way.

Mohamed Bouazizi had made a living selling fresh fruit and vegetables from a hand cart even though he lacked the proper license for street trading. His work was the main source of income for his family. Bouazizi would buy fruit and vegetables on credit from local suppliers and sell them on in the street for a profit out of which he would repay the costs of the produce. Illegal street selling brought Bouazizi into frequent disputes with the local authorities and, reportedly, his small wheel barrow would be confiscated regularly by the police.

It was just such a dispute that took place on the morning of 17 December 2010. Reports are fairly consistent in describing what happened. At around 10.30am a local government inspector, a woman called Faida Hamdi told Bouazizi to move on because he did not have a street vending licence. Bouazizi’s uncle, who was at the scene, stepped in and tried to calm the situation and Hamdi left. But she returned later with two colleagues and they insisted that Bouazizi paid a fine for illegal trading. Bouazizi refused and so Hamdi confiscated Bouazizi’s weighing scales – the vital piece of kit he needed to sell his stock.

Bouazizi angrily marched over to the Mayor’s office in the centre of town to complain to demand that he get his weighing scales back. He was barred from the building and officials refused to see him. He is reported to have shouted “if you don’t see me then I will burn myself”. He then went to a nearby fuel station and returned to the street in front of the Mayor’s offices where he set himself alight in the middle of the traffic.

Individuals make a difference

Bouazizi was not the first Tunisian to set himself ablaze in protest against state bureaucracy but the difference this time was that Bouazizi burned in front of a mobile phone digital camera. And that is the real significance of those events in Tunisia three years ago. It was technology that was the fuel that enabled the revolutions of the Arab Spring to take hold.

Suddenly, individuals can make a difference. When captured by digital technology, distributed by the internet and powerfully amplified by social media, acts of individual men and women can inspire others and lead to revolution. That is why governments around the world are so keen to keep a grip on our mobile phone, email and social media interactions. But the technology itself may be moving in a way that will make it increasingly difficult for governments to control.

Eventually, and inevitably, the network infrastructure will evolve from a centralised system to a massively distributed model and, as it does, so the ability of the state, or anyone, to control cyberspace will slip away forever.

Powerful social media groupings will appear that are not aligned to national boundaries or the interests of any particular state, electronic currencies will emerge that undermine government tax collection and at some point, somewhere on the planet, some small incident will go viral…

And then we shall realise that the real revolution has barely just begun…

Sources

CBS here. The Guardian here. Gulf News here. The Observer here. Reuters here. Al Jazeera here. Wikipedia here.

Holiday

This is the last post of 2013. Compliments of the season to everyone reading this and all best wishes for the new year.

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