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16 December 2020

Mohamed Bouazizi: the faded icon of Tunisia’s Arab Spring

How a death that sparked an uprising has come to represent ambiguous feelings about change.

By Layli Foroudi

On 17 December 2010 a young man was engulfed in flames in front of the governor’s building in Sidi Bouzid, a region in central Tunisia. He was known to his friends and family as “Tarek”; internationally he came to be known as “Mohamed Bouazizi”, the 26-year-old fruit-seller whose act of self-immolation sparked an uprising that soon surged out of Tunisia and across the Arab world.

At the time, condemnation by the Mufti, the highest spiritual authority in the country, did little to lessen the growing feeling of solidarity in response to Bouazizi and his apparent expression of rebellion towards the governing regime. Protests calling for justice and dignity swelled in size and number across the country. The then president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, visited Bouazizi in hospital, but following months of protests he was eventually forced to flee the country on 14 January 2011.

Over the following year the rage and indignation spread further, and populations in neighbouring countries revolted against their authoritarian governments in a series of events that came to be known as the Arab Spring. First, in Egypt, anti-government protests toppled the president, Hosni Mubarak. Next, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi was captured and killed by rebels, and in early 2012, after a year of protests, the Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down. In Bahrain and Syria mass uprisings did not result in regime change.

Ten years on from Bouazizi’s act of protest – in contrast to Egyptians, who arguably live under a more autocratic government than before the Spring, and to the populations of Syria, Libya and Yemen, who have been caught up in proxy civil wars – Tunisians can freely vote for and openly criticise their leaders. But despite the relative peace and newfound freedoms that Tunisia enjoys, revolutionary fervour has soured as the instalment of democratically elected politicians has failed to improve the economy, or to tackle the corruption and regional inequality inherited from former regimes.

How Bouazizi’s story is told has become a sort of microcosmic litmus test for the national feeling towards the revolutionary moment and its consequences. And while there is no definitive consensus on what exactly took place in Sidi Bouzid that fateful Friday, the different interpretations in circulation since are themselves revealing of how attitudes have split and mutated over time.

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***

It was around 11.30am when Bouazizi set himself alight by pouring petrol – some say paint thinner – over his body and flicking a lighter. He had been trying to speak to someone from the local administration after the police confiscated produce he was selling, ostensibly because he did not have the required permit. It wasn’t the first time that week he’d been picked on, but normally it was possible to settle things with a bribe. When he resisted, he was allegedly slapped by a female municipal inspector.

Many close to Bouazizi believe that he intended to feign self-immolation as a threat but didn’t realise just how flammable the liquid would be. Others hold that he did it on purpose, propelled by the injustice and humiliation he had experienced at the hands of the local authorities. The only person who knows is no longer with us; he died from his burns in hospital 18 days later. And so, shorn of facts, the person of Bouazizi transformed into a vehicle for a wide spectrum of accounts and meanings – both pro- and counter-revolutionary.

In one version of Bouazizi’s life story, favourable to those wanting to boost the revolutionary momentum, the fruit-seller who left school as a teenager is instead cast as an unemployed graduate. Chawki Ghanmi, a local reporter for the national news agency TAP, said he was told that Bouazizi had attended university by the extended family – who perhaps wanted to bestow “more value” on their relative. Many others ran with the idea for political gain. Halim Meddeb, an activist with the opposition Progressive Democratic Party during Ben Ali’s rule, told me he knew Bouazizi hadn’t been to university, yet perpetuated the myth when asked by a member of the Spanish press. “We needed the world on our side!” he says now, adding that he thought the death of a graduate would generate more international sympathy. 

In another version, Bouazizi was unhinged. Just after Ben Ali’s apologetic speech on 13 January, Abir Moussi – a former official of the old regime who is now an increasingly popular politician in the new parliament – described him as a “a mental case used against the president [Ben Ali]”, whom she referred to as the “father of Tunisia”. Bouazizi’s medical file said he had third degree burns all over his body but contained nothing about his psychological condition or history, according to a psychologist familiar with the case, who requested anonymity. The accepted story among the medical staff, the source added, was that “he forgot that he was covered in fuel, went to smoke a cigarette and accidentally set himself alight”.

In the immediate aftermath, an inquiry was opened into Bouazizi’s death, however no public information was released regarding its conclusions or proceedings – not even to his immediate family, according to his sister Leila. Then, in April 2011, three months after the departure of Ben Ali, the tribunal in Sidi Bouzid declared the officer Fedya Hamdi innocent of slapping Bouazizi due to a lack of evidence. 

Once a story becomes myth, though, facts don’t matter as much as what the alleged events come to represent. “Fedya Hamdi slapped him! Those that say she didn’t are against the revolution!” said Hichem Latif, 34, the owner of a small seafood business in Sidi Bouzid.

A more disparaging view of the young fruit-seller has also gained ground, however, as successive governing coalitions have failed to come up with a plan that improves living conditions or addresses problems such as corruption, unemployment and regional inequality.

Today the main square in Sidi Bouzid, which is peppered with Bouazizi paraphernalia, shows signs of the movement’s fatigue as well as of continuing revolt. A stone fruit cart erected in the centre of the square in his honour is now covered in graffitied political slogans. Behind it is a black metal gate, closed, displaying the words “Museum of the Revolution”; the project was launched in 2015 but nothing has been built. To the right, a four-storey post office is covered with a graphic of Bouazizi’s face. 

“Do you like our fruit cart?” an aged passerby asked me. “I don’t!” he continued. “Things are not going well at all. There is poverty, no work! What you could get for ten dinars at the market, you now spend 40! Not good at all!” 

Zied Bouazizi, a first cousin of Bouazizi, told me that his surname is like “a curse”. When police see his ID, they give him grief. So do his work colleagues. “They are joking, but it is hurtful when they say ‘the Bouazizi family fucked up the country’ – and they are the lucky ones, they actually have jobs!”

Wael Hadji, the director for the Sidi Bouzid Centre for Dramatic Arts, said he recently heard someone say that Bouazizi “had been using drugs and beating his own mother”. These stories “discredit the revolution”, he notes, adding that Bouazizi’s name is no longer invoked by politicians when they come to campaign in the town. “He should be an icon [but] unfortunately, the story against the revolution is the more present one in Tunisian society nowadays.”

Hadji’s sector is in crisis: even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, some artists hadn’t been paid for state productions since 2017, he said. Nonetheless, he sees today’s set-backs as just one scene in a much longer play. “Bouazizi engaged Tunisia and the whole region in a revolutionary process that is not finished,” he said.

Like many others from Tunisia, Bouazizi’s immediate family has left the country, first moving to the capital Tunis and then seeking asylum in Montreal, Canada, according to Bouazizi’s sister, Leila. Exactly why they moved is still a matter of debate among those who stayed, but since 2011 nearly 100,000 people, the majority of whom are highly educated, have left Tunisia.

People in the Bouazizi family’s old neighbourhood of Hay Nour told me the family was given money by the government, the media and NGOs, which it invested and used to move to a chic Tunis suburb. Yet Zied, the cousin, said this prosperous account of their lifestyle is far from the truth: his aunt rented a small apartment in a working-class neighbourhood and sold fast-food snacks on the side of the road. Going to Canada was better for the family both economically and for their security, said the 38-year-old, who is also hoping to leave the country. “Look at the economic situation here.”

Zied’s brother Kais, who runs a café in Sidi Bouzid, has another theory: the family was stolen. “[They] were deported to Tunis because a lot of journalists were coming to Sidi Bouzid. Sidi Bouzid was the centre of the world and the government was worried it would become more important than Tunis,” he said furiously, tapping into a general feeling in the town and across Tunisia that the revolution was also stolen: stolen from interior regions and taken to the capital; stolen from the youth by the older generation; and stolen by the system, which never really left.

***

As social problems persist, Bouazizi’s myth has also morphed into a trending pathology: an explosion of self-immolation cases. Self-immolation currently makes up 30 per cent of admissions to the burns unit at the Ben Arous hospital in Tunis – around 100 patients per year – compared to just 8 per cent before 2010, according to Dr Amen Messadine, the head of the ward. 

Most commonly, self-immolation is committed by those who are in a precarious economic situation, often unemployed, said Donia Remili, a researcher at the University of Tunis who has written a book on the subject. “They are still convinced that they need to do a theatrical act, something spectacular, in order to get the authorities to listen.” But ten years after the revolution, even this tragic gesture doesn’t generate the same sympathy as before, she adds. “It’s become trivial, it’s sad. People are no longer interested. They have their own problems.” 

Hedi Ltifi, a 32-year-old farmer and a friend of Bouazizi, knows two people who have died from self-immolation: Bouazizi and another friend, who set himself alight after experiencing financial difficulties and a love affair.

In both instances, Ltifi said, it was personal circumstance that pushed them to “threaten in anger, and it ended up happening”. However, in Bouazizi’s case, Ltifi also believes that the act was ultimately political. Bouazizi was someone who “said no to the system”, and for that, Ltifi salutes him.

Layli Foroudi is a journalist based in Tunis

[See also: In the Arab Spring, revolution was made by everyday people]

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