The individual man retains his position as an occasional formative force in history. He is the cause of countless effects, as well as the effect of sundry causes; he shapes his era, as much as it shapes him. There are great men all around us, with the potential to influence contemporary events in profound ways. Yet without the appropriate conditions precedent to act as the kindling, the fires of change would sputter and fizzle into smoky impotence.

Mohammad Bouazizi was born in the obscure Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid in 1984, and was one of six children. Like many of his peers, he received a scant and middling education, and worked regularly since he was ten years old; since his late teens he labored to support an extended family consisting of a mother, uncle, and younger siblings. An estimated $140 per month in wages, earned by selling fruits and vegetables on the streets of Sidi Bouzid, was expected to be sufficient to keep both himself and these relatives clad and shod. Like the other governments in the region, Tunisia’s was profoundly corrupt; important posts, jobs, and opportunities went to those who had connections. Those who did not—of which Bouazizi was one—had to fend for themselves.

The nation’s president, Zine El Abedine Ben Ali, was only the latest of several contemptible mediocrities who had worn the presidential sash since the granting of the nation’s independence. His vices, and those of his notorious spouse, were only circumscribed by their abilities to indulge them; as a consequence, an enfeebling stagnation descended on the population, which had learned to acquiesce fatalistically in the avarice of its leaders. Nepotism, venality, and a stifling bureaucracy was the rule of the day. A citizen unable or unwilling to navigate these turbid waters would quickly find himself destitute.

By all accounts, Bouazizi was an honest, upright man, seeking only the opportunity to provide a measure of support for himself and his kin. With no employment opportunities available to him, he worked as a street vendor of produce. On December 17, 2010, Bouazizi had purchased several hundred dollars’ worth of produce to sell from his cart in the town center. He was then descended on by parasitic police officials claiming that he lacked the requisite “permit” to sell produce; but this, as any informed traveler to the region knows, is parlance in the Arab world for the payment of graft.

But Bouazizi did not have the money to bribe the police on this day. A female municipal official and her entourage confronted the miserable vendor and demanded payment; Bouazizi refused; and in the ensuing confrontation, either she or her entourage physically abused him. His produce scales and cart were confiscated. In any part of the world, a public slapping of a man by a woman would be a profound insult to masculine honor. It is even more so in the Arab world, which places a high value on the saving of masculine face.

His attempts to recover his wares came to nothing. An attempt to appeal to the local satrap was met with official silence. “How can I be expected to make a living?” he begged the governor in desperation. In front of the mayoral office later that morning, Bouazizi doused himself with gasoline and ignited it. Horrified onlookers, having been told that some sort of protest was underway, were unprepared for the ghastly spectacle of a man’s suicide; and the passions of the crowd, aroused to fury at the sight of a death and its attendant injustice, gradually swelled into a seditious torrent that would carry all before it.

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An opportunistic visit by Ben Ali aimed at a show of sympathy

Bouazizi remained in a coma and was transferred to several different hospitals. When public dismay at the story began to gather steam, President Ben Ali—ever the opportunist—decided that some public show of sympathy for the victim might be advisable. A photograph of the hospital visitation scene is grotesque. Bouazizi, wrapped in bandages, is surrounded by nervous, well-fed government officials and Ben Ali himself, all not knowing quite what to do. According to some sources, Ben Ali made promises to send Bouazizi abroad for advanced burn treatment; if so, these promises were not honored. Bouazizi died eighteen days after his act of self-immolation. But by then events had already begun to spiral out of control.

Protests and demonstrations began slowly, in scattered cities and towns around the country, but then began to gain momentum in a few days. Ben Ali, who had enjoyed unlimited power since 1989, hesitated at first, not knowing quite how to handle the situation. Long simmering resentment of Ben Ali and his wife, who was notorious for her own and her family’s greed, exploded across Tunisia.

But because his government was supported by the United States and France, official reaction from abroad to the protests was non-existent. What became known as the “Sidi Bouzid Revolt” (in the Arabic press) or the “Jasmine Revolution” (in the West) surged from the countryside into the capital, Tunis. Trade union activists, lawyers, and public figures organized protests across the country to demand better job opportunities and less corruption. By early January of 2011, more than 95% of Tunisia’s eight thousand lawyers were on strike; some rioters were killed by security forces. The demonstrations had now turned into a full-fledged revolt.

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The Tunisian military, seeing the declining fortunes of their president, removed Ben Ali’s personal security and made moves to take him into custody. By mid-January, apprehending his peril and not knowing how to restore the dignity of his office, he boarded a plan with his wife and a select group of cronies (and a considerable amount of money) and flew off into exile in Saudi Arabia.

The outcome might have ended differently had Ben Ali and his empress been made of sterner stuff.  He lacked a Theodora to stiffen his backbone at the critical moment, as the Byzantine emperor Justinian had had during the Nika Revolt in Constantinople in 532 A.D. In that year, the seat of the Greek empire in the East was convulsed with demonstrations and disorder that had erupted from various factional provocations both real and imagined. Justinian’s inclination was to abdicate, but at the critical moment, according to historian Edward Gibbon, his ruthless empress Theodora shamed his cowardice:

“If flight,” said the consort of Justinian, “were the only means of safety, yet I should disdain to fly. Death is the condition of our birth; but they who have reigned should never survive the loss of dignity and dominion. I implore heaven that I may never be seen, not a day, without my diadem and purple; that I may no longer behold the light, when I cease to be saluted with the name of queen…For my own part, I adhere to the maxim of antiquity, that the throne is a glorious sepulchre.”

Justinian then proceeded to crush the rebels with a brutal fist.  He kept his throne, and went on to become the greatest of all Byzantine emperors. Alas, however, Ben Ali and his queen lacked the stomach for a fight, and preferred to flee with their treasures intact.

The aftershocks of the Tunisian Revolution were profound. Within a very short period of time, every other Arab country in North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Libya, and Egypt) was engulfed in protests and demonstrations. In two of these nations—Libya and Egypt—the ruling clique was overthrown. The situation probably would have been the same in Algeria, were it not for the fact that the country’s exhaustion from its civil war during the 1990s had left little enthusiasm for such ventures. Public protests even spread to Syria, which was soon plunged into its own bitter conflict (which was complicated by outside interference).

Although each nation’s circumstances were different, the fact remains that, incredible as it may seem, the wave of revolt that pulsed through the Arab world after 2011 can be directly traced to the actions of one humble vegetable vendor. Not since the revolutions that swept through Europe in 1848, causing the crowned heads of several ancient monarchies to tremble in fear, had so much popular revolt happened in so little time. Anyone who would doubt the influence of personality on history has only to remember Mohammad Bouazizi.

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