Last Friday, four weeks after a 26-year-old unemployed university graduate set himself afire in front of a government building, a revolution commenced in Tunisia, but it is not over – either for Tunisia or for all countries where the people have had enough of suffering, corruption, and lack of rights.
It was a mini-revolution but it achieved one thing at least: the people of Tunisia were heard – by the man who was apparently pilfering that poor nation for nearly 24 years, and heard by the world that was oblivious to said pilfering. This is the most important achievement – not the fact that, as many observers believe, social networking was an important tool used during the massive street protests that took place during those four weeks. Social networking is undoubtedly important as a tool for connecting like-minded people and spreading first-hand (or third-hand, as the case may be) information quickly and widely. But it is not – yet – a revolution-maker. Revolutions take years of inept and corrupt government, years of unemployment and recession, and years of deeply felt socioeconomic grievance, manifested not least by a blatant disregard for people’s inherent rights. They don’t come about on Twitter and Facebook in a matter of just four weeks. The 26-year-old who self-immolated and sparked the street demonstrations that led Tunisia’s President Zine el Abedine Ben Ali and his family to flee to Saudi Arabia, was, sadly, twenty-six years in the making.
He, Mohamed Bouazizi, was a young man – like all young people – with high hopes of a better life than his parents. He was educated – some reports indicate that he had a university degree – but at 26 years old, he was still without a job, not unlike many young Tunisians, even educated ones. To make ends meet and to be able to care for his family, he managed to obtain a cart from which he could sell fruits and vegetables in the streets and squares of his town in Tunisia – the now famous Sidi Bouzid. But Bouazizi’s little business was considered illegal by the Tunisian government.
Authorities seized his cart and with it his and his family’s only means of survival. The fires inside him were lit for the world to see – he will not soon be forgotten. “He was my soul, my life, my heart. Now he’s a symbol,” his devastated mother, Mannoubia, said.
And the symbolic Mohamed Bouazizi is even greater than Tunisia. If the Internet and its large volumes of information and dialogues are any indication at all, the revolution he stoked is deeply influential for the young people of many other countries, as well. In Algeria, Egypt, and Mauritania, there have been copycat self-immolations in recent days. Many Pakistanis on the Internet have reacted with such fervor to the news coming from Tunisia that they almost feel like it has happened – or could happen in Pakistan itself.
Like Tunisia, all of these nations have obscene levels of poverty that fester beneath an elite whose lives compare with royalty. It is no small thing to reach a point where you are willing not only to take your life but to take it publicly in order to make a political statement. Bouazizi chose to commit his act directly in front of an important government building. The message was impossible to ignore. It was a heroic act, an unselfish act. Throughout history, it has been an act catered by profound desperation. Other Tunisians, as equally desperate and angry, took the reins and so it is that we outside of Tunisia heard the news.
But the mini-revolution that Bouazizi started, and has so far led to the ousting of a corrupt and inhumane leader, is only a preliminary stage for addressing the desperation that plagues Tunisia today. There is already concern that the new government is nothing new at all and that the Bouazizis of Tunisia will not get their due rights as human beings and good citizens. There is already concern that the man who fled will never be tried, will never pay for his crimes. But there is one concern the people of Tunisia have less of: that their voices will be heard. It is empowering, it is vital. It is called dignity. Only time will tell how infectious it will be.