Why a fruit and veg seller could unleash wave of revolutions

Published in the Mail on Sunday (January 16th, 2011)

It all began with the despair of one man, a young graduate unable to get a job, like so many others in his country.

Mohammed Bouazizi turned to selling fruit and veg illegally to earn some money for his family, but when the police confiscated his produce last month because he had no permit, it was all too much. He poured petrol on himself and set it alight in an unusually public protest.

The 26-year-old died earlier this month, but today he is a hero. Not just to his nation, but across the ‘gendarmerie’ states of north Africa.

For that agonising act of self-immolation sparked something remarkable: a wave of protests that, for the first time in recent memory, felled a leader in the Arab world.

Courageous protesters withstood bullets, beatings and bloodshed to oust a loathed president who had made their lives a misery while growing rich at their expense.

For all the uncertainty over what happens next, it is impossible to over-estimate the importance of this moment. Tunisia may be a small country of just ten million people, but the shock waves are being felt far away.

A clutch of ageing despots in countries such as Egypt, Libya, Jordan and Algeria will be wondering nervously if they can prevent a rising tide of anger from turning into a wave of revolutions, just as in eastern Europe in 1989. The consequences could be profound.

The Tunisian protests began in Bouazizi’s home of Sidi Bouzid, a struggling rural town that feels a long way from the tourist beaches.

The president Ben Ali responded with his usual tricks – first a brutal crackdown, then empty promises of change – as unrest spread. But Tunisians had had enough of his lies and corruption. Schools and universities were closed, adding to the numbers on the streets despite a growing death toll – far higher than the official tally of 70. Finally, on Friday, he fled with his hated wife to Saudi Arabia.

Few would have predicted such a sudden uprising. Tunisia was seen as a stable country in an unstable region, long held in the iron grip of a man who had thwarted any threat from Islamists or other rivals. But behind the images on the tourist posters lay a land of raging unemployment and repression.

Ben Ali seized power in 1987 presenting himself as a liberal democrat. Instead, as civil war exploded in neighbouring Algeria, he turned Tunisia into a nastily-efficient police state, with one police officer for every 40 adults and more journalists jailed than in any other Arab country.

At the same time he promoted secularisation, outlawing Islamic parties and banning the headscarf. Women wear jeans, young couples hold hands in the street and there are female professors of theology.

This made him a valuable ally for the West in its misguided ‘War on Terror’, allowing him to tighten the screws without fear of rebuke abroad. But as in many north African states, anger has been swelling. This is a young population – one in five are 15 to 24, they are well-educated, mix with tourists and use Facebook.

Bouazizi is a fitting symbol of the revolution. The official unemployment rate is 14 per cent but in reality it is far higher. One in three graduates are estimated to be without jobs. And while they struggle to find work, with food prices, the first family have plundered the country.

This is why so much of the anger on the streets was directed at Leila Trabelsi, the president’s second wife, whose family provoked hatred with their opulent homes and luxury cars.

One WikiLeaks cable revealed a U.S. ambassadors’s incredulity over a dinner at her son-in-law’s beachfront mansion with frozen yogurt flown in from St Tropez and a pet tiger. A second cable described how another relative stole a £2 million yacht from a French businessman.

With them gone, it is impossible to predict what comes next. The army that backed Ben Ali for so long remains a crucial force, but so far has resisted intervention.

Another hardman may take over. Already, however, the pictures of crowds in the streets have caused ripples of excitement in the region.

‘It actually happened in my lifetime,’ said one blogger. ‘An Arab nation woke up and said enough.’

The grievances in Tunisia are similar to those elsewhere in north Africa: rising prices, repression, grotesque corruption and unemployment. There have been smaller protests in Algeria, Morocco, Egypt and Algeria, and thousands were on the streets of Jordan yesterday angry at food costs.

The people of these countries know how they have stagnated under a ruling class that has consolidated power and money in a few hands. Egypt – another Western ally – seems to bear the most resemblance to Tunisia, with growing fury against a long-serving, autocratic ruler. But Libya is also volatile, an oil-rich, educated nation that has gone backwards under Gaddafi and where his sons are engaged in a power struggle over succession.

Adding to this combustible mix is the threat of Islamists. Arab autocrats, often aided by the West, have kept the lid on extremists but excluded moderate religious parties from power. Who knows what will happen when repression is lifted?

We must hope that Tunisia marks the flowering of Arab democracy and that it takes root across the region. But it could be the unleashing of darker forces.

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