Candles of revolution: Mohamed Bouazizi lives on in this shrine, in the memories of his family and many friends, and in the
revolution sparked by his death.
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Tunisian produce vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, by repute honest, hardworking and generous despite his poverty, was only 26 on the morning of 17 December 2010, when he went downtown in the small and once-obscure village of Sidi Bouzid, stood in front of a municipal building, doused himself with fuel, and struck a match.
Bouazizi was never affluent. His father died when he was three, and although his mother later remarried, her new husband was medically unfit for steady work, leaving Bouazizi to begin supporting his family at age ten. This was never easy: Having dropped out of high school to earn a living, Bouazizi found himself rejected for military service and turned down by one prospective employer after another. Finally there was only one option left: Every morning, he pushed a wooden cart the two kilometers to the nearest supermarket, bought enough fruits and vegetables to fill it, and then resold them at the neighborhood souk or traditional market. Here he made many friends, for he used to give produce to families still poorer than his own, although he needed all the money he could earn to help pay his younger siblings’ way through university.
But there have always been small spirits which, when vouchsafed a little power, will use it to visit misery and contumely on the poor and powerless, gaining thereby an illusory sense of superiority. Such were the police and minor officials who repeatedly harassed Bouazizi, often confiscating his wares and scales and sometimes imposing fines that left him still deeper in poverty. And then, on 17 December, came policewoman Fedya Hamdi, who confronted him on his way to market and then returned to demand that he hand over his scales; when he refused, she slapped him and, abetted by other police officers, forced him to the ground and took away his scales and produce.
A humiliated Bouazizi sought redress from a town official, but was told the official was in a meeting; this was, according to a friend, “the type of lie we’re used to hearing.” Indeed, like poor people the world over, Bouazizi and his friends were habituated to injustice. Experience had taught them this bitter realism: that they could expect from their “betters” no respect and no redress, but only scorn and petty persecutions.
But even the humblest of souls inscribes around it certain bounds of dignity that cannot be breached with impunity, and today those bounds were violated one time too many. Bouazizi left for long enough to get fuel, then returned and set himself ablaze. By this act, he lit a candle of outrage that became a revolutionary conflagration and consumed the 23-year-old presidency of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali; still today this inferno rages on across the Middle East from Rabat to Tehran, and none knows when or if it will cool.
So wends the road of history. Running smooth and straight over loose gravel, mud, potholes and ice, it will seem certain to go immutably on as far as eyes can see — until, having reached some seemingly inconsequential obstacle, it turns suddenly and decisively aside. Here, too, the social pathogens that destroy governments had long festered: Poverty, unemployment, official harassment, scorn, humiliation, degradation all were present. Nor was Bouazizi even the first Tunisian to incinerate himself by way of protest; as in pre-revolutionary France, such public anguish seemed timeless, impotent, ultimately meaningless — mere punctuation in a bleak unending tale of woe. This time, however, was different, for Mohamed Bouazizi was well loved and much missed, and his townsmen resolved that he should not pass in obscurity, nor their outrage fade in unavailing silence.
Never think that Mohamed Bouazizi has lived and died for nothing. By the act of despair that took his life, he has filled millions with fury — and a hope that most had never expected during their lifetimes. Already, his countrymen and the eighty million people of Egypt have flung off the chains laid on them by despots, and for the first time in many decades they may have a voice in the governing of their nations. Already, other despots throughout the Middle East, no longer secure upon their thrones, have begun, in dismay, to offer unprecedented reforms to cool the candescence of their people’s rage.
Habituated to injustice the world’s poor may be, but man was not meant for degradation. And if Bouazizi’s spark does not suffice to keep alight the flames of rebellion, then be sure of this: Other poor and powerless people, harassed beyond endurance, will follow him into martyrdom. And one day, the global neoliberal aristocracy will fall forever, a new democratic order will grow, and the names of poor and powerless men like Mohamed Bouazizi will be inscribed in the memories of posterity as the appellations of martyrs and saviors, to be honored for unreckoned generations of futurity.