French protest in support of Bouazizi French protest in support of Bouazizi. Photo: Antoine Walter/license CC Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic, license linked at bottom of article

Shabbir Lakha remembers Mohamed Bouazizi and his protest that launched revolutions across the Middle East, in the first of a series of articles commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Arab Spring

Ten years ago on 17th December, a 26 year old street vendor set himself alight after having the groceries he was trying to sell confiscated by the authorities. He was humiliated by officials, couldn’t afford to pay the fine and was refused an audience with the Mayor of Sidi Bouzid.

Desperate and angry, Bouazizi doused himself in petrol, marched up to the town hall and set himself on fire. He protested against a rotten regime that had kept him and his people languishing in poverty and incessant inequality with his own life.

But this wasn’t just the action of a lone individual pushed to the brink. His actions represented the deep desperation and frustration of Tunisians at the time, particularly the young. His protest shocked the world but it reverberated with the nation and sent ripples across the Arab world.

The match Bouazizi lit ignited an uprising which brought down the Ben Ali regime. Protests erupted the following day across the country and escalated by the day. They demanded justice for Bouazizi and brought together wide-scale opposition to government corruption, rising food prices and economic insecurity. Workers began striking, including 95% of Tunisia’s lawyers, and as the protests were met with police violence, the protesters only grew more militant and more defiant.

By 13th January, Ben Ali had made sweeping concessions, agreeing to government reforms, to creating new jobs and for an election in which he wouldn’t stand as a candidate – but it wasn’t going to work, the protesters continued to demand his resignation. His time was up and he knew it. The following day he declared a national emergency and fled to Saudi Arabia.

And it didn’t stop there. Fire spreads and revolution are contagious. In what came to be known as the Arab Spring, protests exploded in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Morocco, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Iraq, Kuwait, Mauritania, Palestine, Jordan, Oman and Sudan.

The legacy of the Arab spring

In the months ahead, there will be much analysis of what went wrong with the Arab Spring. Libya and Syria remain engulfed in civil wars, Egypt’s revolution was overturned by Sisi’s military coup and Bahrain’s revolution was crushed.

And even in the case of Tunisia which is sometimes heralded as the lone success story, the causes of what sparked the revolution remain as prevalent as before. In the last ten years, inequality has continued to grow and unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, remains exorbitantly high. In 2020, Tunisians are now the biggest national group among refugees crossing the Mediterranean that have successfully reached Italy.

The Arab Spring has become one of the favourite examples used by conservatives to discredit revolutionary ideas and movements. The Guardian ran a story commemorating Bouazizi with the headline “He ruined us” and suggesting that Tunisians curse him and the revolution – despite citing a YouGov poll towards the end which says that a majority of Tunisians don’t regret the revolution.

Of course, you won’t find in the pages of The Guardian an analysis of how Western imperialism played a decisive role in subverting and defeating the revolutions of 2011, nor on the neo-colonial grip on countries like Tunisia that hinder any progress that can be made.

The reality is that Tunisia’s revolution didn’t fail, but remains unfinished. In 2010, WikiLeaks published a tranche of cables that revealed the grandiose lifestyles of Ben Ali and officials in the regime. The extent of it shocked Tunisians and helped to become a focal point, but it was not unknown to them that they were suffering while those in power were prospering. Bouazizi’s protest catalysed the uprising because it was an outpouring of visceral rage that brought together a fight for democracy and economic freedom.

But the revolution stopped after the fall of the regime and a promise of a new election – the assumption was that democratically electing new leaders would in and of itself solve the economic questions. But as Tunisians can now see, new leaders managing the same bankrupt system will still produce the same results.

But are they worse off for having achieved substantial democratic reforms? Of course not – and now they have the lived experience of their collective power. When protests erupted in Sidi Bouzid last year and in southern Tunisia this year, the Tunisian ruling class was trembling.

And you might think that if the protesters have learnt from 2011, so have those in power, but it’s clear they haven’t. The government responded to the protests in exactly the same way as Ben Ali did – with tear gas, repression and no attempt to resolve the problems that people are facing.

The unfinished revolution

It’s clear that the revolutions ten years ago didn’t accomplish what they set out to in their entirety, including in Tunisia, and there are many lessons to be learned. But they aren’t finished.

The conditions that sparked the revolutions remain the same and worse. While there may be disillusionment in the lack of material progress as a result of the protests, there is to a greater extent the collective knowledge that the organised masses hold the power – and that the West are not their friends.

Last year Algerians successfully revolted and brought down the Bouteflika regime and the people of Sudan brought down Omar Al-Bashir’s regime. The Lebanese uprising brought down Hariri and the protests are still continuing. The people of Iraq took a stand against US troops in their country and workers in Egypt are showing signs of regrouping despite the unceasing repression of Sisi’s regime.

In all these cases, as with the 2011 revolutions and those countries today, there is still a long way to go. But the flame that Mohamed Bouazizi sparked ten years ago remains alight, and with it the spirit of revolution and the hope for the emancipation of millions of people across the Middle East and beyond.


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Shabbir Lakha

Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.

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