The desperate defiance that sparked the Arab Spring

Larbi Sadiki writes: It was an act of self-immolation that would change the course of Arab political history. That is the significance of Mohamed Bouazizi one year on. It will be years before December 17, 2010 and the subsequent chain of events his act set off in Tunisia – and later on across the Arab world – are profoundly grasped by historians and social scientists.

The man and the act spawned a hugely unprecedented movement, forever altering the Arab political landscape, delivering the much-vaunted ‘breakthrough’ in the fight against autocracy.

That breakthrough was akin to an inexplicable ‘big bang’ which created its own chain reaction, irreversibly converting singularity into plurality across an emerging Arab Spring geography.

Theoretically, Bouazizi lacked the kind of pedigree that qualifies one entry into history books. He had no wider horizon beyond being a street vendor. He was not elite – his family was modest in every sense – and his town was on the margins of Tunisia both politically and economically. In fact, Tunisians living in the coastal areas and the north knew very little of the central and southern regions.

This ‘south’ was treated as if it were an empty space. It never was. Tunisians read the country’s luminary Abu al Qasim al Chabbi, the poet whose verse about ‘popular will’ Bouazizi translated into an astonishingly practical act.

Partly, this was what motivated me to visit his place of burial in my first trip back to Tunisia back in January 2011 after Bin Ali’s ouster. Bouazizi – not Ghannushi in London, not Merzouki in Paris – and not the rest of us polyglots, university-educated and bi-national Tunisians in the Diaspora – precipitated that ouster with his indomitable will when he chose to protest against humiliation and marginalisation.

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