December 17

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2011 Self-immolation  of Mohamed Bouazizi

What makes man want to die by setting himself on fire? In the case of  a particular Tunisian street vendor, it was a life of grinding poverty made worse by police harassment and extortion.

Mohamed Bouazizi was born in 1984 to a poor family in Sidi Bouzid in rural Tunisia. Unable to finish high school, he supported himself and his family by buying vegetables on credit and then selling him on the street from his wheel-barrow. On a number of occasions he had run-ins with the police who would confiscate his goods or demand bribe money, actions that threatened his very precarious livelihood. On the morning of December 17, 2010, Bouazizi was allegedly harassed by police who slapped him around and confiscated his produce and electronic scale. He attempted to protest to local officials who refused to hear him out. At this point he threatened to set fire to himself if his scale were not returned and when it was not, he purchased some gasoline. He returned to the square outside the governor’s offices, poured the gas over himself and set it alight. Onlookers tried to save him but the burns were so intense that he remained in a coma 18 days before he died of his injuries.

His actions prompted widespread protests in Tunisia, where disgust with corruption and autocracy had reached a boiling point. The ruler Ben Ali was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia and a wave of  popular discontent known as the Arab Spring broke over the Middle East and North Africa. Governments fell or were forced to make concessions to the people. Bouazizi was treated as a hero in the West; streets were named after him; human rights prizes were awarded posthumously and films celebrated his actions. Alas, the Arab Spring flourished only briefly and, before too long, tyranny and corruption were the norm again.

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