The 2011 Year In Review
On December 25, 2011, 3:47 AM by Karl Moats
From the campus of UC Davis to the streets of Tahrir, global protest dominated the year of 2012.
He didn’t know he would set himself on fire. He didn’t know he would spark revolt from Tunis to Moscow. He didn’t know dictators who never heard of him would curse his name before their own downfall.
All Mohamed Bouazizi knew when he woke up that morning was this: he had to sell fruit. Feed the family. Save up for that pick-up truck they always wanted.
He started early. A little after 8. He got the catcalls, the high fives. The early morning serenades for the Fruit Vendor Guy. Mohamed wasn’t rich. But he had lots of friends in low places. He gave the poorest families apples when he could and plums of wisdom when he couldn’t.
The cop came out a little after 10:30 AM. Mohamed kept his head down. Pushed the wheelbarrow a little faster. He didn’t want to give the cop any excuse to antagonize him, especially not today.
The officer asked for his papers. He didn’t have any, he said. He didn’t need any, he said.
Come with me, the cop ordered. The officer slapped him. Spat at him. Confiscated his scales. And he flipped over the wheelbarrow for good measure.
It wasn’t new. The cops had been pestering Mohamed for months. And he would take his lumps, dust off the toppled produce, and tell himself someday it would stop.
Not today. Today, Mohamed ditched the wheelbarrow and rattled the governor’s front gate. Today, he wanted his scales back. But it wasn’t really about the scales and it wasn’t about the money. It was about the pride.
“In Tunisia, dignity is more important than bread,” his sister Basma said afterwards.
Afterwards, Mohamed doused himself in paint thinner and lit the match.
The police dust-up was nothing new in Tunisia; they had learned to live with it for years. Mohamed’s slight was simply the latest.
But then something unusual happened. The grief went viral. Pictures of Mohamed’s self-immolation Skyped, tweeted, and texted their way from Tunis to Damascus.
And then the grief mobilized. Protesters posted meeting places, security weak-points. Bloggers and students became the foot-soldiers of this revolution. The troops did not shoot; they tweeted. They stormed Tahrir Square but went no further.
We want to believe Cairo ’11 was a Berlin ’89 moment. It was not. Tunisia and Egypt were the humanizing tales of the army standing by but not stepping in. Soldiers looked into the eyes of the protesters not as foes but countrymen. As fellow brothers and sisters who languished together for far too long under the same cruel patriarch.
The region will be freer but not free. The Arab world is still too fractured. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard remains too barbaric. And the oil-rich Saudi Arabia monarchy is still too lavishly wealthy. Again Egyptians stream into Tahrir Square protesting that this is not what they protested for.
But Mohamed stripped away the mystique and aura. Behind that governor’s gate was not an infallible leader but another corrupt malinger clinging to fistfuls of petrodollars. And now ruling families across the Middle East scramble to avoid a similar fate. King Abdullah of Jordan sacked the government. Kuwait gave its citizens $3,500 as a “gift”. But this is not enough. They are mere concessions delaying the inevitable.
George W. Bush apologists smirk that he was right after all. The uprisings vindicate his “freedom agenda”. President Obama supporters retort it was the president’s quiet but firm endorsement of the protesters that nudged Mubarak to resign.
But the truth lies with neither, and this is why Middle Eastern leaders are so skittish: this is a democracy not minted in Washington. America did not impose this change of government; the people chose it themselves. To them, democracy is no longer a nebulous idea tinged with Abu Ghraib and other stains of American imperialism.
This democracy is stamped “Made In Cairo” with young heroes—and growing pains—all its own.
60% of the Arab world population is under the age 25. They were born after the fall of the Shah of Iran but just in time for friend requests. Tahrir Square emblazoned the generation with its own moment. And so they will be more committed to make it last. They no longer have to listen to their grandfathers recount their revolutions. They have their own martyrs now in Mohamed. And they can share their new found status with the entire world.
Mohamed never did get that pickup truck.
Instead, he gave the Arab world something much greater. In memorium, he morphed into a clarion call for young Arabs fed up with the same old, same old. He became the emblematic fallen soldier for a tech-savvy army across the Middle East. Armed with status updates, tweets, and WikiLeak cables, they dig in knowing right makes might, not the other way around.
And cops across the Arab world must accept a new world order. A world order where anything they say can—and will—be used against them.
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