Revolutions often come from unlikeliest places: from a shipyard in Gdansk; from a bus in Montgomery; from a prison cell on Robben Island. But even by these standards, it is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of Mohamed Bouazizi, the fruit vendor whose self-immolation set in motion the events that would culminate in the first successful revolution in the Arab World.
On December 17th 2010, a policewoman confiscated Mr. Bouazizi’s fruits, and then slapped him in the face; Bouazizi first complained at a local office, which was unhelpful, and then out of desperation, set himself on fire. By the time he died on Jan. 4, protests that started over Mr. Bouazizi’s treatment. They unfolded quickly, helped by shaky images taken by phones, posted on YouTube and shared on Facebook and Twitter. On January 14th, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country, ending his 23-year-old rule.
Although they might have been there always, cracks in other Arab autocracies become clearer to see in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution. Gaddafi quickly denounced the Tunisian revolution, although in the past, the erratic Libyan dictator had been always critical of Ben Ali’s pro-American regime. There were further immolations in Algeria, and protests over the ruling Hashemite dynasty in Jordan. And yesterday, it was the turn of Egypt, the Middle East’s largest and most influential Arab state.
At the time of writing, the situation in Egypt remains murky, but Hosni Mubarak looks vulnerable for the first time in his three-decade long authoritarian rule. Yesterday, tens of thousands of people took to the streets, occupied the central Tahrir Square, and surrounded the parliament building. It was there that an amateur photographer took the above photograph, which many are already calling Egypt’s ‘Tank Man’ moment (there is also another video clip that has been thus termed). For this writer, the photo is interesting not just for the historical associations its invokes. Fittingly for an uprising started via Facebook, it comes from an anonymous user who posted it on Reddit and illustrates how social media has changed marketplace of ideas and political discourse.
In the wider Arab world, however, revolution will not be televised, merely because press freedom, as well as democracy, remains elusive. But the region’s geriatric despots are slowly discovering that internet is much more difficult to control.
2011 may or may not be another 1989, but for the time being, it is satisfying to entertain the comparisons with that pivotal year when Communism died in Eastern Europe. Like the Revolution in Hungary which opened that annus mirabilis, Tunisia had unleashed glimmers of hope, if not winds of change, for the Arab world. Comparisons with 1989 are still immature, but it is only January, and a year is a longtime in politics.