A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society
Just in case you missed it, Mohamed Bouazizi is dead. He died on January 4th, 2011. He was buried, where he lived, in a little village outside a place called Sidi Bouzid. From all accounts, Sidi Bouzid is a neat little town, relatively poor but without the screaming poverty that inhabits most of Africa. Likewise, Mohamed Bouazizi was an ordinary guy. He was 26. He’d been to school for a while (like everybody else) and was working away at life, selling vegetables. Nothing special? Just another guy?
On December 17th, 2010 Mohamed Bouazizi was selling his vegetables in Sidi Bouzid when the local police came along. From here, the story is a little hazy because, at that point in time, Bouazizi still wasn’t noteworthy enough to merit much documentation. I don’t know who did what to whom but basically the cops were tense because Bouazizi was selling veggies without a permit. Apparently, they confiscated or destroyed his produce and gave him more than a couple of whacks for his trouble. Selling vegetables may or may not be illegal in Sidi Bouzid, permits notwithstanding; I don’t know. That’s not really important anymore anyway because, later that day, Bouazizi got himself a couple of litres of gasoline, went to the steps of the government office, poured the gas over his head and lit a match. As protests go, this was a good one. And, as they say, the rest is history.
If you’re still confused, Sidi Bouzid is in Tunisia, and Bouazizi’s protest is what started the whole mess over there. The situation has fallen out of the news cycle recently, but the analysis and discussion is still all over the Net — if you want to dig around a bit. If not, here’s the discount version of what’s happening. Tunisia is a little country in North Africa, economically divided into the relatively affluent north and the relatively poor south. Since it became independent from France, in 1956, Tunisia has had only 2 rulers. Both governed with varying degrees of success and oppression. Compared to other parts of the Moslem world, Tunisia is stable and has strong ties with Europe. It has a well-educated population and rising standard of living. All of this is much more evident in the north than the south.
Within that framework, on December 18th, the people in Sidi Bouzid held a protest against the government and the treatment of Bouazizi. As word spread so did the protests. On December 24th, the police shot a protester, and all hell broke loose. The peaceful demonstrations became full-blown riots, and the police responded with more bullets. By the 28th, the unrest had reached the capital, Tunis, and the entire country was boiling over. President Ben Ali made several attempts to control the situation but no amount of band-aids could cover the wounds that were opening up. In the first two weeks of January, 78 people were officially shot (and probably a whole bunch more unofficially) but even this heavy hand couldn’t slow the upheaval. On January 14th, Ben Ali dissolved the government. He took the first plane to Saudi Arabia — with his family and, as is customary in these situations, likely enough cash to see them through the winter and beyond.
Today, the interim government is trying to hold the country together, long enough to have elections, and the people of Tunisia are still in the streets. According to their constitution, elections must be held within 60 days.
Tunisia is a long way away from here. It’s little. It doesn’t have a very big voice in the affairs of the world. However, right now, Tunisia is probably one of the most important places on the planet. The people there are in the streets, looking for a better life for themselves and their children. But there is a lot more at stake than that. What happens in Tunisia in the next couple of months is going to have a profound effect, not only on the world as we know it, but on world history itself. And believe it or don’t, the course of that history may well depend on what you do in the next couple of weeks. Ordinary people are going to decide what happens in Tunisia — ordinary people like Mohamed Bouazizi and ordinary people like you, if you’re willing to give it a try.
Wednesday: Tunisia and Canada: A Clear Connection