The Tunisian fruitseller who changed the Middle East

<em>Time</em> magazine's 2011 Person of the Year award should go to the late Mohammad Al Bouazizi.

Time magazine gives its annual Person of the Year award to the person or group who has had the most profound effect on the year's news. By definition, therefore, it tends to go to the great and the good. This year it should go the man who started the Arab Spring: a 26 year old Tunisian street vendor named Mohammad Al Bouazizi.

Last December, confrontations with a local government official left Mohammad fearing he was losing his family's only source of livelihood. Desperate and unable to get the authorities to listen to him, he set fire to himself in front of the gates of the Governors office in Sidi Bouzid.

He died on 4 January 2011 from his injuries. In the intervening time, rioting, sparked by his act, had started in cities across the country. Before Mohammad died, the man who couldn't get anyone to hear his pleas was visited in hospital by President Zine el-Abidine Ben, and 10 days after his death, the President fled the country.

As we now know, this was nowhere near the end of it. Presidents have fallen in Egypt, Libya and now Yemen. Tunisia itself has had democratic elections. The West has been pulled in to new military action. Syria is in civil war. And all can be traced back to a fruitseller in a small provincial Tunisian town.

Of course, Mohammad Al Bouazizi could not have known where his protest could lead. But that is not the point. One man's act has changed the Middle East more than decades of diplomacy have managed. And I think his influence and memory should be marked.

I don't know if Time will make him Person of the Year -- they've short listed him (which is great), but he's not the favourite. Steve Jobs appears to have a clear lead.

But this year? Please drop Time a line and tell them there's really only one choice.


Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Photo: Getty Images
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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.