Monday, December 17, 2012

Remembering Muhammad Bouazizi

[Originally posted at NOW]

“O nation miserable,
With an untitled tyrant, bloody-scepter’d,
When shalt thou see thy wholesome days again[?]”

– Macbeth, Act IV, Scene III

Two years ago today, a penniless and powerless 26-year-old street vendor from the central Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid took a decision that – though he never lived to see it – would lead to the overthrow of four of the most despotic dictatorships in the Middle East, as well as over half a dozen uprisings that continue to chip away at the region’s remaining tyrannies to this day.

Repeatedly rebuffed from a series of job applications, Muhammad Bouazizi was forced to sell fruit and vegetables from a wheelbarrow to provide for his extended family. This made him easy prey for a vulturine police establishment, who would routinely invent “fees” and other dues to be extracted at their pleasure, sometimes confiscating his produce altogether. On December 17th, 2010, they went further; reportedly slapping him and knocking over his cart when he declined to cough up for yet another bribe. Within an hour, a furious Bouazizi had got hold of a can of petrol and a match, and we all know what happened next.

So unrecognizable is the Arab world today from two years ago that it’s still difficult to believe that the following things actually happened:

In Tunisia, the man who had ruled for 23 years fled ignominiously to Saudi Arabia along with his detestable wife after a month of peaceful demonstrations. Free democratic elections followed, resulting in a human rights activist assuming the presidency.

In Egypt, the tyrant of 30 years was toppled after just 18 days of popular protests. In June 2012, Hosni Mubarak was sentenced to life imprisonment for complicity in the killing of some 850 demonstrators during the uprising.

In Libya, the “Colonel” who had 42 years of dictatorship under his belt was hunted down and eventually killed in a drain pipe by rebels who had taken up arms, with NATO assistance, after initially peaceful protests had met with brutal repression by Muammar Qaddafi’s forces.

In Bahrain, large peaceful demonstrations against the institutionalized sectarian bigotry of the Sunni ruling minority against the Shia majority were countered with tear gas and shotguns by state authorities (bolstered by a 5,000-strong “Peninsula Shield” coalition of Saudi, Qatari and Emirati forces) who have killed over 90 civilians to date. Despite a professed commitment to reform by Sheikh Khalifa, unrest continues to this day.

In Yemen, protestors calling for the overthrow of President Saleh, who had ruled North and then united Yemen for 34 years, were fiercely repressed. After a full year of negotiated half-measures and quasi-resignations, Saleh eventually stepped down in February 2012, some 2,000 civilian deaths later.

And then, of course, there is Syria, where Bouazizi’s match lit not a fire but an explosion. As in Libya, what started as a peaceful campaign turned into a full-blown armed rebellion as the ruling Assad regime turned on demonstrators with pitiless violence. 21 months on, a civil war has sucked in every monster the region has to offer, with the Free Syrian Army competing with Sunni jihadists to gain ground on the depleted but still fearsome regime, assisted in turn by Shia jihadists – a gruesome contest that has already claimed over 40,000 lives, with no end presently in sight.

These are in addition to smaller (but still unprecedented) convulsions in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Saudi, Sudan, the UAE and the West Bank.

The debates will continue for decades as to what all these uprisings were “really” about (Democracy? Economics? Religious/ethnic/tribal sectarianism? Corruption? Imperialism?). Whatever the case, let December 17th be remembered as the day that the untitled tyrants were challenged, and there followed at least a hope of wholesome days ahead.

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