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Mohamed Bouazizi did not plan to start a revolution. He wanted to sell some apples. But the events of December 17 2010 would end in the death of the 26 year old Tunisian street vender, provoking protests that would topple the country’s president, unseat President Hoshni Mumbarak of Egypt and ignite a firestorm of anger across the Arab world from Tunisia to Jordan to Egypt.
There was no sign that December 17 would be any tougher than any other day in his hard scrabble life. He had been trading for a few hours when Faida Hamdi, a municipal inspector, arrived with two officers. Hamdi, wearing her blue uniform and epaulettes, brusquely told him she was confiscating his wares because he did not have a trading permit.
The young trader had been in trouble with the authorities before. Some say he had been picked on regularly and suffered the confiscation of his barrow on previous occasions.
According to his family he refused to pay the bribe offered by the officials. “In Sidi Bouzid, those with no connections and no money for bribes are humiliated and insulted and not allowed to live.” The bribe would usually be 2 days wages.
When Hamdi began seizing his apples, he tried to grab them back and she slapped his in the face. This was the turning point.
Had Hamdi been a man, the story would probably have ended there, just another incident of low level routine degration visited by the powerful on the weak. But to be slapped by a woman in public is the height of humiliation for any Arab man. “She humiliated him, “ his sister sad, “Everyone was watching.”
Embaraced and enraged, he stormed over to the municipal offices and demanded the return of his property. There he was beaten.
Beside himself, he walked to the main regional government building and demanded to see the district governor himself. He was turned away and told flatly that there was nothing he could do about it. Nobody paid the slightest attention when the angry young man was heard to say “If you don’t see me I’ll burn myself.”
Less that an hour after the initial confrontation with Hamdi, Bouazizi was back in the front of the high gates to the governor’s peach-coloured building. He sat down poured two bottles of paint thinners over himself and demanded, once more, to see an official. Then he lit his cigarette lighter. By the time the flames were extinguished he had suffered 3rd degree burns to 90% of his body.
Turning points in history often pivot on chance. The tinder in the rab worl was bone dry: Bouazizi’s dramatic act was the spark. He would die 18 days later a martyr and focus of public rage. The contempt shown by the regime had touched a chord with Tunisians sick of bribery, greed and the casual abuse of power.
The Jasmine Revolution erupted in full force. Thousands masses for his funeral procession. The next weekend 24 protesters were shot dead. Within a week President Ben Ali had fled the country. A 23 year old dictatorship ended in days.
Mohamed Bouazizi became impossibly famous, hailed as a heroic martyr of a revolution he could never have imagined. A film of his life is planned; a Kuwaiti businessman wants to buy his cart; a square in Paris is to be named after him – the humble fruit seller who had a bad day and wouldn’t take in anymore.