x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Bouazizi's courage changed nations

The world that a humble Tunisian vendor left behind is very different to the one that his self-immolation inspired. One year on, The National looks back at the events that sparked the upheaval that transformed Tunisia and the region.

Salem Bouazizi with his wife, Salma Ameri, and their son, Omar, in Sfax, Tunisia. On the wall is a portrait of Salem's late brother, Mohamed Bouazizi.
Salem Bouazizi with his wife, Salma Ameri, and their son, Omar, in Sfax, Tunisia. On the wall is a portrait of Salem's late brother, Mohamed Bouazizi.

SFAX, TUNISIA // A year ago today Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, a gesture of outrage now engraved in history as the spark for the upheavals that have come to be known as the Arab Spring.

But without a daring campaign to tell his story to the world, the sacrifice of this Tunisian fruit-and-vegetable seller, like so many acts of defiance large and small against injustice, would have passed into oblivion.

In the hours and days that followed Bouazizi's self-immolation, his family and supporters braved Tunisia's fearsome security apparatus to publicise his story. That story - and their courage - changed the world.

"People were normally afraid to talk, afraid the police would come for them," said Salem Bouazizi, 33, Mohamed Bouazizi's brother. First a ripple, then a flood, of anger unleashed by Bouazizi's tragedy freed Tunisians, then millions of others across the region, from fear of their self-anointed rulers-for-life.

On the surface, nothing suggested that Mohamed Bouazizi, 26 at his death, would alter the course of history. He grew up in the ramshackle town of Sidi Bouzid, the second of seven siblings. Each morning he set out with his cart and scales to sell fruits and vegetables.

On December 17, 2010, city inspectors whom his family say had harassed him for years confiscated his goods. One, Fadia Hamdi, allegedly slapped him in view of passersby.

When officials spurned his pleas for help, Bouazizi snapped. Outside the governor's office he doused himself in petrol and set himself alight.

Alerted by neighbours, the Bouazizi family dashed to Sidi Bouzid's hospital, where Mohamed lay in bandages. A family friend telephoned Salem, a carpenter in the coastal city of Sfax.

"We were all shocked," Bouazizi's mother, Manoubia, told The National in January. "He hadn't shown any signs of stress."

As Bouazizi was transferred 125 kilometres to hospital in Sfax, where oxygen masks were available, anger in Sidi Bouzid over the incident flared into protests.

For many Tunisians, Bouazizi quickly came to embody their own frustration at national wealth squandered, futures ruined and rights trampled by the regime of the president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

In the capital, Tunis, Zouheir Makhlouf, a journalist for the website Assabil Online, heard the news.

He set out for Sidi Bouzid, but was assaulted outside his house by a plainclothes agent who stole his camera, he said. Mr Makhlouf turned to his telephone, gathering "all the evidence I could about what was happening", he said. Then he sent phone numbers for the Bouazizi family to Al Jazeera.

That evening, the broadcaster called Ali Bouazizi, a relative of Mohamed Bouazizi, who had posted a video of protests on Facebook "because it was time to say something about corruption and abuse".

Meanwhile, in Sfax, Bouazizi's ambulance arrived at Hedi Chaker hospital, where his family and about 150 supporters assembled.

Salem Bouazizi's wife, Salma Ameri, 32, peered into the ambulance. "I could hear all the family crying around me, and I couldn't believe Mohamed might be dead".

Suddenly, Mrs Ameri, who was pregnant, felt her belly stir. Shocked into early labour, she was taken to a clinic near the edge of town.

At Hedi Chaker hospital, the crowd pressed at the doors and staff threatened to bring the police against them. Finally, Salem Bouazizi was allowed to enter.

"Mohamed's whole head was burnt and he had an oxygen mask," he said. "He was sleeping deeply."

That evening, Mrs Ameri gave birth to Omar, Salem's and her first child. The next morning Mohamed was taken to Ben Arous hospital in Tunis.

Sometime in the next day or two, Salem Bouazizi answered his phone to hear a voice with a Lebanese accent. Would he talk live on-air to Al Jazeera? the voice asked.

"I told them I didn't know anything about politics, but that my brother was killed by corruption and abuse of power," he said.

That declaration - self-evident, seemingly modest - was remarkably bold.

Among regimes that have striven to silence dissent, Ben Ali's excelled, with vast surveillance networks and heavily monitored phones and internet. Three years earlier, authorities had contained protests in the Gafsa mining region by arresting activists and allegedly opening fire on demonstrators.

Fahem Boukadous, one of the few reporters covering Gafsa, was forced into hiding after police tried to arrest him.

This time, the regime stumbled. News of Mohamed Bouazizi was spreading through Tunisia and abroad and by the time protests reached Tunis, the world was watching.

On January 14, 2011, 10 days after Mohamed Bouazizi died of his burns, Ben Ali jetted to exile in Saudi Arabia.

Tunisia's example unleashed a firestorm of Arab protest. Posted on Facebook and Twitter, scrawled on placards, graffitied on walls, leaping from streets and squares on to television, the cry went up: "Leave!"

In February, the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, was driven from power by weeks of protests, while revolt also broke out in Libya against Muammar Qaddafi.

Late in February, The National contacted a businessman in Benghazi, where protests were in full swing. The sound of chanting rang in the background. After a slight hesitation, the businessman suddenly said: "I guess it is time now for us to start talking."

Talk he did - 10 minutes without a break, as if a dam had burst.

Protests were crushed in some places and defused in others, but continue in Syria and Yemen despite efforts by regimes to beat, jail and kill protesters into silence.

Tunisia has continued to set examples for Arab countries transitioning from dictatorship to democracy. In October the country held its first free elections, which led to a coalition interim government of moderate Islamists and secularists.

That government must now make reforms to strengthen Tunisia's faltering economy and clean up state institutions, while helping draft a new constitution.

For Salem Bouazizi, the revolution ignited by his brother's death remains unfinished while such challenges remain, he said.

"Of course, there is political change," he said. "There is freedom of speech. Before, nobody listened, now they must listen."

Following the loss of their son and brother, then months of media glare, the Bouazizi family's lives are gradually returning to normal, Salem said. There were arguments with neighbours and a tense lawsuit against Ms Hamdi, the city inspector who allegedly slapped Mohamed, but that ended when the Bouazizis abruptly dropped charges. Today the family live discreetly in a Tunis suburb.

Salem Bouazizi and Mrs Ameri live in Sfax, where Salem continues his work as a carpenter. On the wall of their sitting room is a framed portrait of Mohamed with a clean, young face and fringe of curly hair.

Last week, Salem's little sister Basma told him of a dream of Mohamed in white clothing and a light beard, saying: "We're in Libya and we're going to Syria." Salem paused, then said: "Mohamed didn't die."

jthorne@thenational.ae