On December 17, 2010, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, helping fuel the protests that have spread across the Arab world over the past few months and have pushed two of the region’s presidents out of office.
Bouzazi lived in a rural town in Tunisia called Sidi Bouzid, where unemployment is estimated to be over 30%. The 26-year-old was working as a street vendor, selling enough fruit to provide for himself and the seven family members he lived with.
When a municipal inspector tried to confiscate his goods on December 17, he was reportedly slapped, humiliated, and beaten further when he went to a local government building to demand the return of his property. In protest, he doused himself in paint thinner and lit himself on fire in front of the governor’s office, causing burns that would eventually lead to his death on January 4.
They would also lead to a revolution in his own country and a thousand miles away in Egypt. Four weeks after Bouzazi’s self-immolation, Tunisian President Sine El Abidine Ben Ali left office, which he had held since 1987. Then, on February 11, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was also forced to resign. He had been president since 1981.
The overthrow of the two presidents was the work of weeks of protest, led chiefly by young people who organized themselves over the internet, using social media networks like Twitter and Facebook. In Tunisia, several people attempted or committed suicide to protest hunger, joblessness, and the poor state of the economy. Other protesters were killed in clashes with police, and the total death toll has been estimated at over 200 by the United Nations.
In Egypt, protestors complained about corruption, police brutality, unemployment and poverty. A “youth bulge” in the country’s population and a lack of jobs for college graduates has resulted in an unemployment rate of over 25% for the youth sector, according to the International Monetary Fund, which also estimates that almost 10 million jobs are needed to close the gap. Furthermore, women in Egypt are almost four times more likely to be unemployed than men, says the UN.
While Presidents Ben Ali and Mubarak are no longer in office, it’s clear the interim governments currently in place in Tunisia and Egypt will have a long road ahead in overcoming the social and economic troubles that instigated the protests, and to form stable governments that are more democratic and less corrupt than their predecessors.
Meanwhile, other countries around the Middle East have been inspired by the wave of protests. Leaders of countries such as Jordan, Syria, and Yemen have made promises and changes in their governments in an attempt to stave off the wide-scale demonstrations seen in Tunisia and Egypt. Others, recognizing the realities of poverty, hunger, and joblessness behind the protests, have made promises of housing and development or have simply handed out cash, in the case of King Hamad of Bahrain.
For the young people of the Arab world who suffer hunger and homelessness and few prospects for the future, this may simply not be enough.
Most recently, the protests have spread to Libya, the North African country between Tunisia and Egypt that has been ruled by a dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, since 1969.
Gaddafi has brutally attempted to quell the uprising with more violence than has been seen in neighboring countries’ conflicts. Foreigners have been rushing to evacuate the country before Libya erupts into what may be soon a civil war.
Hope for democracy and the end of Gaddafi’s dictatorship has led many members of the Libyan military to defect to the opposition, often after being ordered to fire on the
Two pilots with the Air Force defected, landing on the nearby country of Malta to avoid firing on crowds of their countrymen, and, according to the International Federation on Human Rights, 130 soldiers were executed by their superiors for refusing to fire at the protesters.
However, reports from inside the closely guarded country say that Gaddafi is losing control of much of his territory.
The overwhelming number of protesters fighting for democracy and the end of dictatorships in their countries has prompted an outcry from the international community.
It remains to be seen whether foreign and domestic pressure will be enough to force Gaddafi and other leaders out of office, and whether these populist movements will redefine the Middle East for years to come.