No. 8: Mohamed Bouazizi

Mohamed Bouazizi had to make a living. His father had died of heart failure when Mohamed was 3 years old, and his stepfather wasn’t strong. Bouazizi had a high school education but stopped short of graduating because there was no money for his schooling. Instead, at 19, he worked to support his five younger siblings, including a sister bound for university.

Trying to make a living in Tunisia can be more grueling than any job. The country’s history has been one of invasions and enlightenment. In Tunisia’s recent past, France ruled for 75 years, until 1956. The French planned for a constitutional monarchy for Tunisia’s first elections, but Habib Bourguiba circumvented them and created a republic — one with a single party. He ruled for 31 years, until a bloodless coup replaced him with Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in 1987. Under Ben Ali, the standard of living improved compared with that of neighboring countries, and the per capita GDP tripled in 20 years. But those who benefited were a select group: Corruption was blatant, and a U.S. ambassador report — made public through Wikileaks in 2010 — described Ben Ali’s regime as “sclerotic” and its populace as “frustrated by the lack of political freedom and angered by First Family corruption, high unemployment, and regional inequities.”

Harassment, humiliation
Bouazizi lived in Sidi Bouzid, a “farm town” with a 30% unemployment rate. For seven years, he pushed a cart of fruits and vegetables. The work was tiring, and he was saving to purchase a pickup truck. For seven years, the police harassed him and other market sellers, taking their goods with impunity. His friend Hajlauoi Jaafer told Al-Jazeera that Bouazizi had learned to live with humiliation ever since he was a child. But in his last year, the debasement worsened. He had received a 400-dinar fine, equal to two months’ earnings.

Details differ on exactly what happened on December 17. An official, Fedya Hamdi, stopped him in the streets. This time Bouazizi didn’t want to give up his goods. The night before, he had shown his mother the fine oranges, dates, and apples. “Tomorrow,” he had told her, “will be a good day.”

The fine was 10 dinars, a good day’s wages, but then something else, something more important, was taken from Bouazizi. Defiant words were exchanged. Hamdi may have hit him with a baton. A group of policemen wrestled him to the ground and took his wares. Then, before a crowd of about 50, the official slapped him in the face.

“Blame these days, don’t blame me”
Bouazizi had a mother and seven brothers and sisters. They depended on him. He went to local officials, to no avail. He posted a message on his mother Mannoubia Bouazizi‘s Facebook wall:

“I’m traveling, mom. Put no blame on me. I’m lost in a road I have not chosen. Forgive me if I ever disobeyed you. Blame these days, don’t blame me. I’m leaving with no return. I’ve had enough of crying and no tears came out of my eyes. There’s no need to blame this age of treachery in this estranged land. I’m tired and putting everything behind. I’m traveling and I’m wondering if the travel will help me forget.”

Within an hour, Bouazizi had set himself on fire.

An ambulance took 90 minutes to arrive. He went to three different hospitals and lasted 18 days before dying. During that time, a video of his act — recorded by his cousin — spread through Facebook. Ben Ali visited Bouazizi in the hospital with a check. (His mother claims the check was for the cameras only.) At that point, it was too late for either Bouazizi or Ben Ali: The revolt had begun. Other men killed themselves, and other men were killed in police confrontations. Mobile phones captured images of riots, which were circulated online, setting off a contagion of outrage. Ten days after Bouazizi died, on January 4, Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia.

About 5,000 people attended Bouzazi’s funeral. Hamdi was arrested and spent three months in prison, but Bouazizi’s family withdrew its complaint. His mother cast her first vote in an election. The family mourns its son, brother, and nephew but takes pride in the spirit that brought Tunisia to this day.

Martyrdom questioned
Tunisians are still fighting for representation. In October, protesters burned government offices. One video captured a chant, “You can’t insult the people of Sidi Bouzid.”

In the neighborhood, Bouazizi’s legacy is murkier. The family left Sidi Bouzid for a suburban apartment. Resentful former neighbors accused them of profiting, which saddens the Bouazizis. Hamdi denied having slapped the vendor. Others martyrs have emerged. But it began with Bouazizi.

The Yahoo! Year in Review editorial lead for five years running, Vera H-C Chan dissects news events, pop-culture idiosyncrasies, and online behavior to probe the “why” behind what’s hot online. On Yahoo!, her articles can be found in News, TV, Movies, and her Shine blog Fast-Talking Dame. Across the Net, there are remnants of contributions to a cultural travel guide, martial arts encyclopedia, movie criticism, business profiles, and A&E/features reporting.