CAIRO: What was it that “precisely” happened a year ago on December 17, 2010?
That day, the idea of human freedom, in full color, took to the center stage of TV screens all over the world. We witnessed an unprecedented event in the contemporary history of the Middle East: Revolution with capital R.
On December 17, 2011, Mohamed Bouazizi, a humble Tunisian vendor, set himself on fire, protesting the confiscation of his wares and the harassment and humiliation inflicted on him by a municipal officer.
Serving as the catalyst for the Tunisian revolution that overthrew the country’s entrenched leader Predident Zine el Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, 2011, Bouazizi’s death, misery, and a call for change resonated throughout the region.
As we observe the uprisings and revolutions taking place all over the Middle East, all of them still nascent or unfinished and going into the second year; it seems as if what the protesters were demanding was not simply a political transition, but that under the slogans of freedom, justice and peace, they wanted to change life.
Political transitions we have seen already, however, are hardly encouraging:
In Libya, Ibrahim Ali, chairman of the Libyan Transparency Association – an NGO founded in May 2011 – has lodged major complaints of corruption with the National Transitional Council. He has expressed great concern about slowness of the new authorities to investigate and prosecute and said that “It’s better now than under Ghaddafi, but the revolution will be for nothing if we are not successful in stopping corruption”.
In Egypt, the “temporary” hold on power of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has turned into a de facto military dictatorship in which political dissidents are put on trial on charges of insulting the military and without a fair trial. Foreign journalists are subject to endless harassment and protesters are constantly attacked. At least once a month, clashes erupt in which Egyptians are killed in cold blood.
Lastly, in Yemen, a deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council has given immunity to long-time dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh and all of his family. It has not entirely been able to put violence to a halt, angering many in the revolutionary youth who are not formally affiliated with the opposition parties. The irony of the GCC deal in Yemen is only too evident when absolute monarchies with a faulty record on human rights and political freedom oversee democratic transitions.
In the meantime, Syria remains engulfed by the fire and a resolution is nowhere to be seen in the horizon, as the international pressure has very little effect and it can be said with certainty that Assad still receives support from some players in the international scene.
Stability has been slow, if not unlikely, to return to the tiny Gulf-kingdom of Bahrain.
In Bouazizi’s own Tunisia, in spite of being the shining star of the Arab revolutions, some incidents have made people hesitant about future clashes between religious fundamentalism and secularism.
These are so far the results of Arab Spring, that more often than not, is a very ambiguous and sometimes condescending term, “that does not only strike us as too Romantic a way to describe complex political processes that often led to bloodshed but also constitutes neither a novelty in the genre of political journalism nor does it belong to the repertory of 2011’s inventions:
According to Joshua Keating, the term was first used by conservative political commentators in the United States during the Bush administration, to describe a short-lived flourishing of democracy movements in the region, particularly in Lebanon with the Cedar Revolution in 2005.
In reference to the same article, Foreign Policy’s own Marc Lynch, published a brief op-ed titled “Obama’s Arab Spring,” alluding to the short-lived momentum of 2005, two days after Bouazizi’s death and long before this so-called Arab Spring was in full swing. The term then became popular all over international media around March, and not without irony, after the initial euphoria was already wearing out.
Arab Spring or not, it cannot be denied that what was witnessed since the desperate act of Bouazizi and all through the events that ensued in the course of one of the longest years in Middle Eastern history was a transition, not necessarily of the political and immediate kind, but one in which the map of the Middle East unmade itself and demanded an immediate renovation.
“The mood that prevailed during the early days of 2011 could be more aptly expressed by Hannah Arendt with words from her last public appearance, commemorating the bicentenary of the American Revolution and with deep reservation about the state of affairs of the revolutionary treasure:
We may very well stand at one of those decisive turning points in history which separate whole eras from each other. For contemporaries entangled as we are, in the inexorable demands of daily life, the diving lines between eras may be hardly visible when they are crossed; only after people stumble over them do the lines grow into walls which irretrievably shut off the past.
At such moments of history when the writing on the wall becomes too frightening, most people flee to the reassurance of day-to-day life with its unchanging pressing demands.”
It is unthinkable that we would have got so far in the story without the courageous act of Mohamed Bouazizi, and whose act – that cost him his life – is now in the books of history as the iconic symbol and powerful trigger of the Arab Revolutions.
The now prominent Egyptian blogger Maikel Nabil – sentenced to two years imprisonment and who stands as the symbol not of the Egyptian Revolution but of the military counterrevolution still continuing today, with the sole intention to silence all critical voices at any price – wrote about Mohamed Bouazizi in September, 40 days after he began his hunger strike, using the example of Bouazizi as an example and precedent for his struggle.
Many of his critics – and sometimes friends – tried to convince Nabil to end his strike because hunger strike is a type of suicide. However, he invoked Bouazizi, expressing the idea that perhaps his “death changes the lives of others”.
In words of Nabil: “The most prominent example on this idea is the incidence of Mohamed Bouazizi committing suicide. The Tunisian youth who was subjected to injustice, so he set his body on fire in front of the building of the municipality of his Tunisian city, so his death erupted the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and the rest of the Arab countries…
The Egyptians who have suffered Mubarak injustice, and who lived for decades in Mubarak’s prisons, all those owe their freedom to Mohamed Bouazizi’s suicide… If there were a God, I don’t imagine that this God would throw Mohamed Bouazizi in hell, because God is benevolent and likes benevolence for people, and the religion came for the benevolence of mankind, so why would God sanction a person for bringing goodness for the tortured mankind?”
The truth is that as it stands today, it is not only Mohamed Bouazizi whose death stands now as the price for the freedom of an entire region, but also the hundreds and thousands of people all over Libya, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia that met their deaths in the course of this struggle. In that sense it can be said that Bouazizi – wherever he is – he is in good company.
Not only is he in the company of remarkable freedom fighters and revolutionaries, but also in the company of countless women, children, elderly people and many others whose lives were taken in the course of violent unrest leading towards freedom. Many of these people might not have known why or when they died, they might not have heard of Mohamed Bouazizi or of Arab Spring at all, but the fact remains that they are no longer among us.
Among the endless casualties of the Arab Revolutions, no one has suffered more than the youth – the future – whose life stories, whose contributions to their countries, whose place in society, were taken by the ruthlessness of those who fail to understand the moment of the change and cling to power with greed and blindness, depriving not only families but also entire countries, from their most precious asset – young people. What has remained of all those lives other than memory? Nothing but what Maikel Nabil expressed: “When your death changes the lives of others.”
On the anniversary of Bouazizi’s courage and heroism, there might be too little to celebrate, especially in Egypt when it becomes clearer and clearer each day that the army is not going to let go of its grip on power and that will find every excuse and will enter every political game available, only in order to take away from Egyptians the legacy – controversial or not – of Tahrir and once more, send an entire nation, with its 5000 years history, down the path of more tyranny and destruction.
Many of the opponents of Tahrir and of the many other iconic symbols of the Arab revolutions perhaps have forgotten that exactly a year ago, even the idea of raising one’s voice against tyranny was not even a far-fetched dream and those few who did, met their deaths early or spent their entire lives in exile or locked behind bars.
Long as this path seems – and it seems longer each new day – it is in the hands of the peoples of the Middle East not to let the torch ignited by Mohamed Bouazizi die out. He and so many other people have given for this struggle the only thing that no one can give more than once – their lives, and because of that, the only tribute possible is not in memorials, or being the person of the year in any magazine or shedding tears and lighting candles.
The only tribute worthy of Mohamed Bouazizi’s struggle is to pass on the torch of the revolution until that new life that we all envisioned during January 25 will become a living reality for all the people that are not involved in the revolution.
“Amidst the stalemate of political discussions, enfranchisements and ideological dead-ends that have taken now to the center stage, replacing freedom and the revolutionary promise, whenever I think about Mohamed Bouazizi, I doubt that he would have joined the procession of political analysts in drafting proposals for new constitutions, democratic republics and transitional councils.
It seems to me that as if collectively reading the thoughts of many in his generation that had never experienced freedom, he saw that the elements that constitute our “vita activa” on earth stood in need of redemption from and within the inevitable quest for meaning.
Only the possibilities of human action possess the power to remedy if only temporarily the helpless fragility of human affairs and as such, they redeem not man but allow man to redeem the world from its inherent meaninglessness – making it into that hospitable man-made home where politics can happen.
The pointer of redemption always glitters when the voice of a man reaches into the direction of history, compelling men to act together, even as he is being consumed by the fire. Symbolic as it was, Mohamed Bouazizi’s desperate act brought into the world something that was not there, something of a miracle – he promised them the world.”
*Excerpts in quotation marks are taken and adapted from: Arie Amaya-Akkermans, Revolution or Redemption: The Middle East, in “Finished and Unfinished, from Primal to Final”, eds. P. Caringella, W. Cristaudo, G. Hughes. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, due spring 2012.