On the morning of December 17th 2010 Mohammed Bouazizi went to work. He left his house in good spirits and set up his fruit stall in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. Bouazizi was a graduate in a nation where youth unemployment and corruption had led him to regularly bribing the police, who refused to grant him trading permits. On December 17th the police confiscated Bouazizi’s stall. In an act of suicidal protest, Bouazizi set himself alight. His desperation and dissent antagonised anger and rebellion in Tunisia’s youth. By January 9th 2011 protests had encouraged action from labour movements, rural workers and online activists. Although the government attempted to quell the protests through concessions, anger mounted until January 14th, when the 23 year rule of President Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali came to an end.
In January, 180,000 British tourists were in Tunisia. Although it is no diplomatic secret that Mr Ben Ali’s regime was one of the most autocratic in the Arab world, it would shock tourists to hear how greatly Tunisia relied on tourism for political security. European nations promoted Mr Ben Ali’s Tunisia, naming the dictator a ‘friend of the West’ despite his corruption. Mr Ben Ali’s election in 2009 was verified by the UK and other nations although the US claims that no officials had been allowed to observe the ballot. The US has been vocal in its support of the protestors, who the White House praised for their “courage and dignity”, whilst Europe called for electoral reform. Many journalists remain cynical, believing that the autocratic nature of Tunisia will never change. This will not inhibit the expectations of citizens, hopeful that the collective action of protests will permanently change the nature of Tunisia.
Six other youths across the Arab world have now mimicked the actions of Bouazizi, setting themselves alight to attract attention to their causes. The nature of Bouazizi’s action was not that he caused change but that he became the public embodiment of dissent. It is claimed that Mr Ben Ali’s rule gained its longevity as a result, in part of his connection with the West, but mainly due to the fear inflicted upon Tunisia’s people. Bouazizi’s choice removed much of that fear, and as Khalaf argued, “a regime that rules by fear loses its balance once that wall of fear crumbles.”
In Tunisia it took extreme actions from one man to being to crumble that wall, and others will no doubt stand tall to any battering ram, however the availability of information could slowly begin to bore through. The attention and support of the West for citizens, the open publication of critique of autocratic governments and the disobedience of citizens would not necessarily disassemble regimes but it may help to provide a route to organise opposition effectively. There is hope that the revolt in Tunisia will spark protests and raise awareness throughout the world of the injustices which citizens of autocratic states face in order that no such sacrificial or violent means must be employed to grant citizens the rights which they deserve.
Hopes for a future of freedom ring out in Tunisia as it enters a three day period of mourning for the fallen. Hopes for those living in autocratic states are also needed now, not just that rights can be obtained or held onto, but that Bouazizi’s sacrifice will not often have to be repeated to gain the momentum citizens need in striving for their freedom.