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The most striking aspect of Mohamed Bouazizi’s life is how ordinary it was. He was a typical 26-year-old Arab trying to make a living in a neglected Tunisian town, a fruit and vegetable seller whose ambition was to save enough money to buy a car. His meagre daily earnings were spent on supporting his family. No one of course will know what went through his mind when he bought a bottle of petrol and burnt himself alive. But the morning of his December 17 suicide had been a Kafkaesque struggle to recover the cart that had been confiscated by the police.
He was sent off from one government office to another. It was on the doorstep of the governor’s office that his desperation finally exploded, unleashing his agonising personal protest. While he died two weeks later from his wounds, he will forever be remembered as the spark of the Arab spring. With one tragic act, he awakened a generation of Arab youth from a long, uneasy sleep and altered Arab history.
The flame he lit in the little-known town of Sidi Bouzid led to the toppling of the country’s dictator and soon spread to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, as youth-led uprisings – some still raging – fractured a decades-old authoritarian order. Along the way he has shattered long-held assumptions on which world powers based their policies in the region and financial markets predicated their analysis – namely that autocracy was the key to stability.
Even in the wealthiest, most apathetic corners of the Arab world, governments were forced into a soul- searching exercise and had to race to tame potential unrest with generous handouts. As youths poured on to the streets in a largely peaceful human wave of fury and bravery, defying tanks and bullets and ignoring the torture they might suffer at the hands of brutal police, they demonstrated that they were no different from their western peers, aspiring to embrace the same values of freedom and democracy.
Bouazizi symbolised the combination of drift and what Arabs call ihbat (extreme frustration), the bane of a generation. In fact, his self-immolation could have gone unnoticed – he could have been just another victim of abuse in a police state that had so repressed society that it assumed it to be numb. But below the surface of calm projected by Tunisia, an image so mistakenly accepted by the west, many young men and women were waiting for a spark. Bouazizi’s suicide was seized on by a savvy network of young unemployed university graduates, who fed pictures of protests to Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab channel with a unique power of mobilisation in the region, and disseminated them through Facebook.
Within a month, the protests had reached Tunis, the capital, and President Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali and his corrupt family were fleeing to Saudi Arabia. Young Egyptians watched in admiration and asked themselves, why not us? Eleven days after Mr Ben Ali’s fall, the children of the region’s most populous nation brought revolution to the heart of the Arab world.
Abdelkhaleq Abdulla, the Emirati academic, says Bouazizi’s plight reverberated so poignantly because he represented the two essential but missing needs for Arab youth. “First is the search for dignity that people have been trying to reclaim for the past 40 or 50 years. Bouazizi told them that they had to revolt to bring back that dignity,” he says. “Second is that he stood for tens of millions of Arab youth who needed jobs, who wanted jobs, who were capable of jobs but who could not find jobs. All he wanted was to be a fruit seller and he couldn’t even have that.”
It is true that no one had foreseen an explosion in the Arab world at this particular moment. But the symptoms of a youth malaise had been diagnosed year in and year out, by academics and businessmen, by multilateral institutions, and by the autocratic governments themselves.
The change sparked by Bouazizi was in reality a broader youth rebellion against the political elite
The statistics told a part of the story: over half the population under the age of 30, and youth unemployment the highest in the world. Even those who sought higher education – and their numbers were growing – entered job markets for which they were of little use. In a paper released a few months before Bouazizi’s tragedy, the World Bank warned that “not investing in young people, in particular not creating the required jobs for them, will make youth more vulnerable and at risk of being marginalised, creating generations of idle citizens ... subject to negative societal phenomena and will require substantially higher investments to recover.”
But young Arabs had already reached that stage of alienation. And their rage and resentment were particularly acute in countries where leaders were ready to deliver the ultimate insult and pass on power to their children, perpetuating their dictatorship. “Bouazizi lit the fuel that was there for a long time, an accumulation of frustrations, from unemployment to the inability to express yourself, from the migration of young people to the repression of the state,” says 28-year-old Khaled, an activist from Syria, where the revolution is now in its 10th month.
What escaped the Syrian regime, and its peers, he says, was that young Arabs were creating useful links with each other through social media sites, a virtual connection in which they were flooded with information and could exchange revolutionary advice. Some young men and women also had attended workshops on peaceful resistance, applying the lessons in Tahrir Square, and sharing them with other Arab activists. In Syria, activists communicate via Skype and they have countered the information blackout by sending out videos of protests recorded on mobile phones.
“The regimes thought the youth were divorced from politics,” says Khaled. “They didn’t notice that young people were connected among themselves, that they had ambitions, that they were aware and that their awareness was higher than among the traditional opposition.”
The political transformation sparked by Bouazizi was in reality a broader youth rebellion against the political elite, including the traditional opposition. In some ways, it can be seen as a rejection of an older generation that had failed its children, allowing the state of ihbat to persist. The ideals of Arab nationalism that the parents of the Arab youth had aspired to were not only bankrupted by military defeats against Israel but also exploited by dictators to justify the repression. One of the martyrs of the Egyptian revolution was 23-year-old Sally Zahran. She was said to have been clubbed to death in Tahrir Square but it later emerged that she had accidentally fallen from the balcony after arguing with her mother and threatening to kill herself if she was not allowed to join the protests.
In denouncing the old order, Arab youth also have been reluctant to appoint leaders, despising forms of authority they consider corruptible. The absence of leadership has been one of their most potent weapons, as regimes confronted an uncontrollable mass, oblivious to political deal-making. Even when Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian Google executive whose kidnapping during the revolution earned him hero status, suggested that a transfer of power to Egypt’s vice-president – a step short of his resignation – might be satisfactory, the youth turned against him. “He [Mr Ghonim] has fallen,” was the reaction of Tahrir Square.
Perhaps the most important accomplishment of the youth is that they were able to shed the fear that had trapped the older generation for decades. In the alleys of Sidi Bouzid and other towns, peaceful protests in the day gave way to street fighting at night. The turning point in Egypt too was on January 28, when demonstrators doggedly returned to confront security forces. The police melted away that day; and has yet to return to the streets in full force.
“Surprisingly, when the protesters are attacked violently, more come in,” Tawwakul Karman, the fiery, charismatic Yemeni activist, who was one of three women to win the 2011 Nobel peace prize, remarked earlier this year. “It is like they are saying to the regime: you can kill us, but we will never die.”
It was in Libya that young men, many of whom had never seen a machinegun, let alone held one, demonstrated the greatest courage, rushing to the front lines after minimal training. Even those who were in their late 30s or 40s liked to call themselves “Arab youth”, so appealing was the brand when the Libyan uprising erupted in March.
While no one can dispute the phenomenal role of Arab youth as the engine of change, as countries move from revolution to political transition, the youth’s greatest strength is also proving their weakness. Focused on destroying the old order, the diffuse, youth movements are finding themselves ill prepared for political life.
Their dreams of a more just and dignified existence, of jobs, have been disappointed not least by the economic losses caused by the turmoil. As political elites return to the fore, the unity of purpose that joined them regardless of sect or ideology is fraying. Impatient and idealistic, many are eager to return to the streets at every disappointing turn in the transition. “The energy is still there but we didn’t organise ourselves from a political sense. We were busy with the revolutionary process,” laments Shadi al-Ghazali Harb, a young Egyptian. “The roads [to politics] were blocked and the seniors, the elite, whether liberal or Islamists, didn’t allow the youth to take over in leading positions.”
But the youth who have carried Bouazizi’s cause will have to adapt. As Prof Abdulla says, they “can already claim a victory in bringing down the old regimes and that was their historical role. They are not the ones who will build the new system, a formidable task for all of us, and a job for the next 20 or 30 years”.
Additional reporting by Andrew England and Heba Saleh
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