From the new epilogue
In 2011, the Arabs turned a page as the worst decade in the modern history of the Middle East drew to a close.
The defining conflicts of the decade—the War on Terror and the Iraq War— reached closure in 2011. American commandos killed Osama bin Ladin on May 2, 2011, in his secret compound in Pakistan. The man behind the September 11 attacks was now dead. And, in December 2011, the last American troops withdrew from Iraq, bringing to a close nearly nine years of war and occupation. Yet both these momentous events were overshadowed by a wave of popular demonstrations that challenged and toppled autocratic rulers across North Africa, the Middle East, and the Arabian Peninsula. With the revolutions of 2011, the Arab world entered a new age of citizen action for human and political rights that endowed the region with a newfound sense of dignity and common purpose.
Though the Arab revolutions of 2011 caught the entire world by surprise, the underlying pressures for change had risen to the surface in many Arab countries well before 2011. The Arab world is marked by its youthful population. According to UN figures, over 53 percent of the population is under the age of twenty-four. Yet Arab governments are failing to provide for their younger citizens. By 2009, youth unemployment rates in the Middle East were the highest in the world, with figures ranging from 20 to 40 percent in individual countries, as compared to the worldwide average of 10 to 20 percent.1 Graduates are leaving schools and universities across the region in growing numbers only to find that there are no jobs for their talents. Inevitably, the growing ranks of unemployed educated youth have grown increasingly disenchanted with their governments.
By the start of the twenty-first century the old Arab social contract was broken. The Arab world’s autocratic governments had since the 1950s promised to provide for all the needs of their citizens in return for an absolute monopoly over politics. By 2000, all but the oil-rich Arab states had proved incapable of living up to their promises. Increasingly it was a narrow band of friends and family of the region’s rulers that were the prime beneficiaries of any economic opportunities. The level of inequality between rich and poor in Arab states rose alarmingly over the past two decades. Rather than address their citizens’ legitimate grievances, Arab states responded to growing discontent by becoming ever more repressive. Worse, these repressive regimes were actively seeking to preserve their families’ control over politics by dynastic succession, as aging presidents groomed their sons to succeed them. Not only was the Arab social contract broken, but these failing regimes threatened to perpetuate themselves.
These tensions were most apparent in Egypt. In 2004, a group of activists formed the Egyptian Movement for Change, better known as Kifaya (literally, “Enough!”), to protest the continuation of Husni Mubarak’s rule over Egypt and moves to groom his son Gamal to succeed him as president. Also in 2004, Ayman Nour, an independent member of the Egyptian parliament, formed the Ghad (“Tomorrow”) Party. His audacity in challenging Mubarak in the 2005 presidential election captured the public’s imagination, but Nour paid a high price. He was convicted on dubious charges of election fraud and jailed for over three years. In 2008, younger, computer-literate opponents of the regime established the April 6 Youth Movement, whose Facebook page voiced support for workers’ rights. By year’s end, the group numbered in the tens of thousands, including many who had never engaged in political activity before.
Egypt’s grassroots movements were no match for the Mubarak regime. In parliamentary elections held at the end of 2010, the ruling National Democratic Party secured over 80 percent of seats in elections widely condemned as the most corrupt in Egypt’s history. It was widely assumed that the elder Mubarak was paving the way for his son’s succession through a totally compliant parliament. Disenchanted, most Egyptians opted to boycott the elections to deny the new parliament any glimmer of a popular mandate.
The Egyptian experience of frustration and repression was shared by people living under autocratic regimes across the Arab world. As the late Samir Kassir, the Lebanese journalist quoted at the start of this book, reflected, it was not pleasant being Arab in the first decade of the twenty-first century: “Feelings of persecution for some, selfhatred for others; a deep disquiet pervades the Arab world.” The disquiet set down roots through all layers of society and spread across Arab states before exploding in the revolutionary year of 2011.
What no one had predicted was that change would begin in Tunisia. Known for its pro-Western policies and as a safe tourist destination, Tunisia was a deceptively calm country. Yet all it took was an individual tragedy to galvanize Tunisian citizens into an unprecedented movement for change that would enflame the entire Arab world.
Mohamed Bouazizi was born and raised in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, one of those inland provincial places neglected by tourists and the government alike.2 He earned a precarious living and helped support his mother and siblings with the proceeds of his vegetable cart. By all accounts he was an affable and popular man, whose high school education had given him a love of poetry and reading. Twenty-six years old, he was hoping to save enough money to expand his vegetable trade by buying a van.
It was hard enough to make a living selling vegetables without having to pay off the municipal inspectors as well. Vendors in Sidi Bouzid claim that they had to pay ten Tunisian dinars (approximately US$7) to secure the inspectors’ permission to sell on the street. Failure to satisfy the inspectors led to fines for selling without a permit of twenty dinars (US$14). Mohamed Bouazizi had been fined twice in the past two years. On December 17, 2010, Bouazizi was accosted by a forty-five-year-old female inspector. He didn’t have a permit, didn’t have cash for a bribe, and could not afford another fine. Eyewitnesses claimed that when Bouazizi defended his produce against confiscation, the inspector encouraged two of her colleagues to beat the young vendor and seize his wares.
Smarting from his loss and public humiliation, Bouazizi went to the municipality to complain about his treatment and then sought an audience with the provincial governor of Sidi Bouzid. He received another beating at the municipality and a snub from the governor, who refused even to see him.
Confronted by corruption, injustice, and public humiliation, Mohamed Bouazizi doused himself with paint thinner outside the gates of the governor’s office and set himself on fire. He suffered burns over 90 percent of his body before the flames could be doused by horrified onlookers. He was rushed to a hospital and placed in intensive care. Though Bouazizi was not to know it, his desperate act of self-violence marked the start of Year 1 of the Arab revolutions.
That same afternoon, a group of Bouazizi’s friends and family held an impromptu demonstration outside the governor’s office. They threw coins at the metal gates, shouting “Here is your bribe!” The police dispersed the angry crowd with batons, but they came back in greater numbers the next day. By the second day the police were using tear gas and firing into the crowd. Two men shot by the police died of their wounds. Mohamed Bouazizi’s condition deteriorated.
Word of the protests in Sidi Bouzid reached Tunis, where a restive young population of graduates, professionals, and the educated unemployed spread word of Mohamed Bouazizi’s ordeal via the Internet. They appropriated him as one of their own, erroneously claiming that Bouazizi was an unemployed university graduate reduced to selling vegetables to make ends meet. They created a Facebook group, and the story went viral. A journalist working for the Arab satellite TV station Al-Jazeera picked up the story from Facebook and put it on the air. The state-controlled Tunisian press did not report on the troubles in Sidi Bouzid, but Al-Jazeera did. With its story about the underprivileged standing up for their rights against corruption and abuse, Sidi Bouzid began to run nightly on Al-Jazeera’s programs to a global Arab audience.
The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi galvanized public outrage against everything that was wrong in Tunisia under President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s reign: corruption, abuse of power, indifference to the plight of the ordinary man, and an economy that failed to provide opportunities for the young. After twenty-three years in power, Ben Ali had no solutions. However much the Tunisian dictator was reviled, it was his wife, Leila Trabelsi, and her family that became the focus of public outrage. It was common knowledge in Tunisia that the Trabelsis had enriched themselves at the nation’s expense, but the rumors were confirmed through the publication of U.S. State Department reports from Tunisia by the WikiLeaks website. Reports by U.S. diplomats on the Trabelsi family’s extravagances were made public at much the same time news of Mohamed Bouazizi’s tragedy was gaining circulation.
On January 4, 2011, Mohamed Bouazizi died of his burns. An individual tragedy, a communal protest movement, a discontented nation, social networking websites, Arabic satellite television, and WikiLeaks: it was the making of the perfect twentyfirst- century political storm.