Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, 2010
Mohamed Bouazizi lost his father when he was three years old. His uncle took over the family farm, such as it was; little more than a few acres of depleted soil barely fertile enough to feed the immediate family. Mohamed’s uncle, to his credit, sought to install an irrigation system, and borrowed from the bank to do so. Although Mohamed desperately wanted an education, he had to leave school as a teen to help work on the farm. One day his uncle fell ill. Mohamed tried to keep up the farm himself, but even with irrigation there was precious little surplus to bring in cash, much less for a poor farmer to pay off the onerous loan. The bank took the farm.
Mohamed sought work elsewhere, but without education found himself repeatedly turned away. He even tried to join the army. He was rejected. He turned to selling vegetables in the streets of his village. Every day he would borrow cash from a street lender, then buy produce from nearby farms to fill his wheelbarrow, push over to town, or the outskirts of markets, or wherever he could find willing buyers. End of each day, with the day’s proceeds, he’d pay back the lender and pocket the meager profits, if he was lucky.
One day in December, a few local policemen targeted Mohamed, asserting that he lacked the required permit to sell in the street. It was, of course, a shakedown for a payoff. But Mohamed had no money to pay. The officials, one of whom had made harassing Mohamed a bit of a habit that year, took to giving Mohamed a beating for not paying them. They seized his wheelbarrow and scale, then smashed and scattered his fruits and vegetables across the road.
Mohamed was scared, humiliated and angry. Once again, he was in a desperate situation. He went to the local governor’s office and begged. Not for justice, though he certainly was entitled to that. No, Mohamed knew seeking justice was a pointless pursuit. He simply begged for his property back, so he could continue selling vegetables and support his family. Despite his supplication, he was not even granted an audience with the local official to hear his pleas. Rejected by a power far beyond his control, once again, and now utterly distraught, Tarik al Mohamed Bouazizi walked out the front door of the government building and into the middle of the street. Dousing himself in gasoline, he lit himself on fire. Burned over 90% of his body, he fell into a coma and was hospitalized. He died two weeks later, having never regained consciousness.
Mohamed’s suicide triggered the townspeople to rise up in spontaneous protest against their shared enemy – corrupt institutional Power. So intense and widely-shared was their pent-up anger against just the kind of injustice inflicted on Mohamed, the protests and boycotts rapidly expanded to Tunis and across the nation. So complete was the shutdown, so singularly clear was their voice, it was only three weeks until the strongman President of Tunisia was forced to abandon his office after a 23-year reign. He fled first to Paris, where he was summarily turned away. Ultimately his only refuge was Saudi Arabia, whose strict conditions for entry and residence included restrictions on his whereabouts, his movements and, importantly, his very speech.
From this, the world bore witness to a seething outrage, previously dormant, now fueling social upheaval across the region. Within a month, mass protests emerged in eleven nation-states: Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Four dictatorial governments were toppled—in addition to Tunisia, leaders were ousted in Egypt, Yemen and Libya, whose dictator Muamar Qadhafi was assassinated in the streets.
In the end, all of North Africa and most of the Arabian Peninsula experienced the largest, quickest, and arguably the most coherent mass anti-government protests in recent history. Called the Arab Spring by some, the Lavender Revolution by others, this spontaneous emergence of collective human power, brought to bear by individual citizens acting en masse against the corruption of their respective governments and institutions, was historic in speed, scale, and effect.
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But for the random selection by a few corrupt thugs, of this one particular street vendor, that day in Sidi Bouzid goes in a different direction. Another man might have paid the bribe; most had before. Another man might have fought back, landing himself in prison. Another might have accepted his beat down, physical and psychic, then fled to new town. But on that fateful December day, institutional Power activated a man willing to speak his truth to power, at whatever cost.
Mohamed Bouazizi was but one soul. He acted alone. He was not trying to change the world. But he was trying to change his world. He had less-than-zero connections into Power; he was one of the outsiders, the victims, from whom institutions extract their power. Not only did Mohamed have no friends in government, no friends in the police force, he had no advocate who could even speak to Power on his behalf. That is to say, Mohamed had no voice.
Mohamed was a simple man, pushed to maximum despair by faceless power, corrupted. Government, political, economic; most every source of power that impinged on his world, on his life, seemed to have a hand in his outcome. Power took him to the limits of fundamental unfairness, human indecency, humiliating disrespect, and spiritual dishonor. Mohamed may not have had the education to know just how these institutions function as systems, but he had the street view of their impact. In this moment, at the end of a series of victimizations, Mohamed summoned whatever spiritual willpower he had left to speak with the only voice he felt was available to him. Such is the depth of oppression that corrupt, faceless, institutional Power is so easily capable.
Like the billions of others who are, right this minute, living a life equally rough and tenuous as his, Mohamed saw those institutional powers far more clearly than most of us. We are silent, though perhaps reluctant, beneficiaries of institutional power, directly or indirectly. It’s not like we make an active, conscious choice to do so. It is the role we have been assigned, by Power. We owe it to those multitudes now living in abject poverty to at least own up to this reality of our life on Earth. Mohamed was doing nothing wrong; he was simply exercising his birthright to care for his family. Any of us would do the same, had Power placed us in his shoes. Alas, for the exercise of his most basic of human rights, Mohamed paid with his life. #KnowTheirNames