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. Read more…