Exactly one year ago, a university-educated Tunisian, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in the provincial city Sidi Bouzid, after police confiscated his unlicensed fruit and vegetable cart because he refused to pay bribes to three council inspectors. Bouazizi was 26 years old and supported eight people on $150 a month. His hope had been to trade up from a wheelbarrow to a pick-up truck. Because Bouazizi refused to pay the bribes, his cart was seized and he was beaten. After he was not granted an audience with the governor, Bouazizi poured a can of fuel over himself and set himself on fire. He was taken to the hospital with burns over 90 percent of his body and died on January 5.
On December 17, 2011 — a year in which the President of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, was ousted and tried in a cage as global audiences watched; in which Libya’s long-time dictator Muammar el-Gaddafi was deposed and killed; in which the President of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, finally agreed to a transition of power after 30 years; in which a popular uprising has persisted in the wake of a bloody crackdown in Syria – Tunisians unveiled a statue of Bouazizi. As Moncef Marzouki, an activist who became Tunisia’s president last week after the country’s first democratic vote, was quoted by Al Jazeera:
“Sidi Bouzid, which has suffered from marginalisation, restored the dignity of all Tunisians. We have pledged to restore the joy of life to these areas.”
Al Jazeera reports that tens of thousands rallied and danced in Sidi Bouzid’s main square; streets were adorned with photographs of Tunisians killed in the popular revolution that, a month after Bouazizi’s self-immolation, led to the ouster of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in power. Celebrations will continue through the weekend and include Nobel Peace Prize-winning Yemeni opposition activist Tawakkol Karman, among other international figures.
Economic and Social Challenges Remain
But while the revolution has brought democratic freedoms, poverty and joblessness remain the reality for the vast majority of Tunisians. Unemployment was at 13 percent at the end of 2010 and is now at 18.3 percent and even higher for young people. The revolution has actually set Tunisia’s economy back as tourists and foreign investors have stayed away, says Al Jazeera:
“Honoring Sidi Bouzid is good but we need to work, only jobs can restore our dignity. People here need bread, not a musical instrument to entertain themselves,” Nabila Abidi, an unemployed university graduate, told the Reuters news agency in the town.
“The new government must understand the message well and take care of us and improve our conditions. If not, the revolution will return,” said Mansour Amamou, another resident.
Tunisia’s gross domestic product growth is forecast to drop to about 0.2 per cent in 2011 from 3 percent in the last year of Ben Ali’s rule. However, officials expect it to bounce back to 4.5 per cent in 2012.
Riots have occurred in some towns due to the economic uncertainties in recent weeks, with some setting fire to government buildings and clashing with security forces.
2011: The Year of A Global Youth Revolt
Much, much remains to be done to improve the material circumstances of all. But there is no doubt that Bouazizi’s act of desperation has set off “convulsions,” as the Guardian puts it, across the world:
…in the depths of a Russian winter activists are planning their next howl of protest at the Kremlin; in a north American city a nylon tent stands against a bitter wind; in a Syrian nightmare a soldier contemplates defection….
It began as a Mediterranean revolt spreading on both sides of the sea … from Tunisia through Egypt and Libya and beyond, and from Greece and Spain upwards into Europe. In a million different and fragmented ways, scenes of protest were the narrative backbone to 2011 played out again and again in cities as far afield as Santiago, Stockholm and Seoul.
But to view the activism of 2011 through a nationalist, ethnic or even class lens is to miss its unifying trait … 2011 was the year of a global youth revolt.
Driving many of the youthful protesters is a thorough uncertainty about dwindling economic opportunities and the sense that they will be the first in many generations to face a future in which they will be “worse off then their parents.”
In addition, the “80 million unemployed young people from the most well-educated generation in human history” are unsure — who among us can be sure? — about how to integrate themselves in a globalized economic market. Jesse LaGreca of Occupy Wall Street speaks of frustration with “political promises” and of having “to make that change ourselves.” The Guardian also quotes David Osborn of Occupy Portland:
“To see the movement generally, but in particular the youths, mobilise and really demand the impossible â€¦ to think Mubarak would not have been president more than a few weeks or even a month or two before he actually fell was almost impossible. And yet they asserted that another world without Mubarak was possible, and I think that kind of re-inspired the radical imagination in many of us.”
It’s no wonder that Time magazine chose the protester as its Person of the Year, in a year in that saw the widest-scale uprisings since 1968. As the example of Tunisia shows, much, much remains to be done, but, as the Guardian also notes, the protests of 2011 were also significant for being “largely non-hierarchical, creative and locally autonomous” and “consciously so.” Social media played a huge part in spreading minute-by-minute news of protests, brutal crackdowns and more protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo, in Sana in Yemen, in Dara’a in Syria, in Tripoli, at Bahrain’s now-demolished Pearl Roundabout.
Demonstration, strikes and occupations continue to this day. While the internet played a huge role, the Arab Spring and the occupy movement in cities in US, Canada and Europe has reaffirmed the power of asserting your presence, of showing up and standing and sitting in, to make the simple statement “here I am” — or rather, “here we all are.”
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