The fire that Mohamed Bouazizi set over his own body had burnt thrones of two dictators whose autocratic rules spanned 23 and 30 years respectively, and accorded freedom to people of two nations—first Tunisia and then Egypt.
It all began at Sidi Bouzid, a nondescript small town in Tunisia, in humiliation for a man who had suffered life long indignation at the hand of corrupt public officials, the goons of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled the country with iron hands for 23-years.
At the age of 10 Mohamed Bouazizi became the provider for his family, selling fresh produce in the local market. His father had died when he was three years old, and he did not have the opportunity to finish school, for there were five younger siblings that he had to take care of. He applied for various jobs, but in a country where unemployment ran in double digits, he could find none. Finally, he improvised to earn a livelihood on his own.
Every day, his journey would begin at the local supermarket where he would fill his wooden cart with fruits and vegetables and then walk two kilometers to the local souk, and nearly everyday, he would be bullied by local police officers. They would often confiscate his scales and his produce, or levy fine for setting up a stall without a permit. Six months prior to his suicide, police had sent him a fine for $280 to his house—the amount was equivalent to two months of his earnings.
“Since he was a child, they were mistreating him. He was used to it,” Hajlaoui Jaafer, a close friend of Bouazizi, said. “I saw him humiliated.” On December 17, 2010, however, it crossed the limit that Mohamed could endure. That morning, a policewoman sized his vegetable laden cart and proceeded to seize his weighing scales. Bouazizi refused to hand it over; he was slapped by the policewoman, and she pinned him to ground with the help of her colleagues. They wrestled away his weighing scale.
Bouazizi sought justice by going to the local municipality building and asking to meet an official to express his grievances, however, no one would meet him. With frustration pinning him against the wall, Mohamed poured paint fuel over his body, outside the local municipal office, and set himself ablaze.
Mohamed Bouazizi was not the first Tunisian to set himself on fire in an act of public protest, there was Abdesslem Trimech before him in the town of Monastir on March 3, but things happen when the time is right. Mohamed was a very popular man who would give free fruit and vegetables to poor families, and in his death they returned his kindness by protesting vehemently.
On the evening of Mohamed’s self immolation, Ali Bouazizi, a cousin of Mohamed Bouazizi, posted a video of a peaceful protest led by his mother outside the municipality building. The video was aired on Al Jazeera’s Mubasher channel.
The uprising that begin in Sidi Bouzid soon spread to other towns. From Sidi Bouzid to Kasserine, then Thala, Menzel and Bouzaiene. The protests spread like wild fire in dry forests, and Tunisians of all age, status and profession joined the revolution.
By the time Mohamed died of his burns on January 4, the uprising had engulfed the whole of Tunisia. Fedya Hamdi, the female police officer who tormented Bouazizi had fled the town. Tunisian protesters communicated with each other on Facebook, used Twitter, and followed the news via satellite channels Al Jazeera, France 24, Al Arabiya and others.
President Ben Ali declared a state of emergency in the country, dissolved the government on January 14, 2011, and promised elections within six months, but it was too little too late. Ben Ali resigned the presidency at about 4pm, and fled with his family members in four helicopters bound for Malta. Ben Ali sought exile in France but was refused, and finally went to Saudi Arabia, the epicenter of despot Muslim rulers.
The body of Mohamed Bouazizi lies in a simple grave in Sidi Bouzid, surrounded by olive trees, cactuses and blossoming almond trees, and when Arab history of this century is written, his grave would become the new pilgrimage, the most sought after relic of the indomitable Arab spirit and freedom, and will inspire all despairing people, everywhere, for generations to come.