All it took was one young man. The recent protests that have been sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East were set off by the desperate act of one young man. Mohamed Bouazizi was 26 years old. He was supporting his entire family – mother, uncle, and five siblings – by selling fruit from a cart in the streets of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. All he wanted was freedom. He wanted an education. He wanted a job. On December 17, 2010, when the corrupt authorities of his Tunisian town publicly humiliated and degraded him, taking away his right to earn a living, Bouazizi set himself on fire. While he lay in the hospital, his frustration was taken up by thousands of people who took to the streets in protest. The authorities tried to stop them, but they had been pushed too far. Just over a month later, Mohamed Bouazizi and many others are dead. One dictator has fallen, liberating a nation that has been oppressed for more than 20 years. The example set by Bouazizi and the Tunisians who rallied behind him have spread throughout the region, causing a revolution, an awakening.
The success of the Tunisian protests, which resulted in the fall and flight of the President, who had reigned authoritatively for 23 years, has spread in recent weeks to other countries with similar backgrounds. Egyptians have taken to the streets by the thousands in the hopes of deposing their 29 year ruler. In Yemen, thousands of student protesters gathered outside the country’s biggest university, crying for the ouster of that regime. Algerians have been protesting rising food prices, which reached an all-time high globally in December, and have called for better public housing. In Lebanon, after a Hezbollah backed billionaire moved into power, the people took to the streets in protest. Jordanians have staged anti-government protests, which have thus far remained peaceful. Even Morocco, whose monarchy has invested in infrastructure, education, and fighting poverty more than other nations in the region, has been affected by rallies and acts of self-immolation by protesters. A man in Saudi Arabia is believed to be the first person in that country’s history to burn himself in protest. The poor and disenchanted people of these countries have seen that by mobilizing and using their anger and force, they can create change. The courage and desperation demonstrated by Tunisians has shown that if they want change, they must get it themselves.
The governments are fighting back, of course. The Egyptian government has outlawed organized protests, causing clashes between demonstrators and riot police. Yemen has arrested movement leaders. Four people have been killed and many more injured in Algeria. Violence has been a weapon used by oppressive regimes throughout history. They use heavy handed tactics and displays of military might to beat back uprisings. They arrest, imprison, torture, kill. They have done it before and they will do it again. It may work this time and it may not. If the movement that began in Tunisia comes to a halt over the following weeks and months, the oppression will continue. The powerful will carry on manipulating the poor. The poor will carry on suffering. It will not end there, however.
We in the West view North Africa and the Middle East through a tinted lens. We see so much religious fundamentalism and war on our TV screens from these regions, that we tend to forget about other issues. We forget that there are regular people trying desperately to scrape out a living. We forget that most of the people in the region are honest, hard working people, the same as the majority of us. These uprisings, with their distinctive lack of Islamic or otherwise religious flavour, are being led by regular people – people like Mohamed Bouazizi. The rulers can oppress the honest for only so long. Their desperate attempts at wielding and holding on to power only cause desperation to mount in the millions that they are beating down. At some point, they will no longer be able to beat them back, and as one regime falls, another uprising will begin. Could this be the beginning of a new day in the world’s poorest countries? All we can do is to lend our support. the rest is up to them.