Bouazizi and an ongoing struggle
This blog was supposed to have been written for 17 December, but events in Cairo put it on the backburner, and indeed seem to provide a connecting thread to events on that same day a year ago.
I was never really one for commemorating my birthday. Sure, it was a reason to see friends and family, but on a personal level it wasn’t something that resonated deeply. It was always just another day, a benchmark maybe but never a significant shift.
On 17 December 2010, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi went to the office of the governor of Sidi Bouzid to meet him and ask for the return of his electronic scales, which had been confiscated by police earlier that day. He was turned away at the meeting, even though he threatened to set himself on fire if he didn’t meet the governor.
He went to get a can of gasoline from a nearby petrol station and set himself alight. It was a story that filtered through on that day, my birthday. Of course, then it was a story in and of itself. No one knew it was a precursor of things to come.
It was taken as a very symbolic gesture at the time. The young man burnt himself alive because he felt he had no other choice. Meanwhile, Arab leaders lived off illegal gains that belonged to the people they violently oppressed.
Many seemed to have seen it that way as well. Within hours, protests began in Bouazizi’s hometown. I remember following the Sidi Bouzid hashtag on Twitter, likening the demonstrations in my mind to the 2008 Mahalla riots in Egypt. And then, ten days after Bouazizi died on 4 January, 23-year despot Zine El Abadine Ben Ali was ousted from power.
People in the region were a bit shell-shocked. The questions began to be asked: Would this happen elsewhere? The oppression was broadly the same across the board; the frustrations and grievances were similar. Was Egypt like Tunisia? After Ben Ali had high-tailed it to Saudi Arabia, three Egyptians attempted to set themselves on fire in front of the cabinet. There was also unrest in Egypt at the time because of the Two Saints Church bombing in Alexandria. And police day was coming up on 25 January, and Egypt was a police state, like Tunisia had been before the revolution.
We all know what happened next, but after Mubarak’s ouster 11 February, I began to reflect on Bouazizi’s death. I had ascribed the significance of my birthday to what he had done. Was his sacrifice imbued with greater significance because of what happened afterwards? Wasn’t the death of a man who felt he was at the end of his tether significant enough? Did a street vendor in Tunisia, someone who must have felt that he was inconsequential in the greater scheme of things — to the extent that he took his own life out of desperation — upset our understanding of how things work, because he became a catalyst for more things?
Of course, he wasn’t the sole reason for all that happened. Decades of oppression and frustration were building up to this point, but the timing favored his final act. I’m sure many more qualified than me will continue to speculate on why the uprisings happened in 2011, rather than a decade earlier or a decade later. However, what we need to take note of is the continual sacrifices of Arab people a year on. In Syria, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain … and yes, in Egypt too.
On 17 December 2011, I joined the funeral procession of Sheikh Emad Eddin Effat, secretary general of Dar al-Iftaa, the first victim to be killed by the military attack on the cabinet sit-in in Qasr al-Aini. He was the first of ten killed so far. For three days now, the battle rages on after the military attacked the cabinet sit-in. The images and videos of military transgressions are numerous, but as of yet no one is being held accountable, just like events of Maspiro on 9 October and Mohamed Mahmoud on 19 November.
This seemingly endless cycle of violence against protesters continues even after the dictators are gone, the propaganda wars continue and the lies continue. The deaths pile up and not one representative of the armed forces has been held to account.
And maybe that’s why Bouazizi’s death remains a case of unfinished business. In Egypt the military ruled under Mubarak, and they rule still. Accountability, and more pertinently, justice, is still not upheld in Egypt. You can still kill and get away with it. Bouazizi was the start of something that is not yet finished.