Contributed by Raghda Salama
“How do you expect me to make a living?”
These were the last words believed to have been uttered by Mohamed Bouazizi before he set his body aflame on December 17, 2010. With only a cart of vegetables, the 26 year old supported his family of eight. Earlier during the day, he had gone about his daily routine only to be met with a police officer who confiscated his scale, allegedly slapping him, beating him, and insulting his dead father. When he went to formally complain to municipal authorities, they refused to meet him.
He took to the street, and sparked a fire that is still burning today. He has become a hero, a legend, and a symbol for what the world was bound to witness. Simply put, Tunisians, Egyptians, and Yemenis have overthrown some of the most long-standing dictatorships of the region.
Immediately following his self immolation, men and women from his small hometown Sidi Bouzid protested the injustice that Bouazizi experienced on the day of the incident. Demonstrations spread like wildfire across Tunisia, and following former President Zineldine Ben Ali’s self-exile, to Egypt and then Yemen. The next dominos to fall were former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, later followed by former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The cause of the protests was clear. There was a myriad of Bouazizi’s in the region, all of whom became victims of injustice every day more than the day before. Rising poverty rates, unemployment rates, illiteracy rates, corruption, police brutality topped with nearly non-existent political freedoms made the revolutions inevitable.
Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen have arguably passed through a year of relative progress. Tunisians have elected an assembly in November, which has voted for human rights veteran Moncef Marzouki as Tunisia’s first interim President after the revolution last week. He is due to appoint a prime minister from the Islamist majority party, Ennahda, while the assembly drafts a constitution.
About 2000 km away, Egyptians continue to fight ongoing corruption, oppression and violence, this time personified by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the army. In the meantime, parliamentary elections are currently in progress. Two out of three rounds have been completed and so far, the Freedom and Justice Party (the Muslim Brotherhood) are ranking quite high in this popularity contest. Other major players are ElNour Party, which follows Salafist ideology, the largely liberal Egyptian Bloc, and the Revolution Continues Coalition, which brings together Islamist, socialist, and liberal political parties. However, SCAF members have stated in a press conference that this parliament will not be representative and that SCAF holds all final decisions on all matters to be discussed in parliament.
In Yemen, current President Saleh is scheduled to leave his post and cede all his powers this December 23, following negotiations brokered by the GCC. His deputy would then assume responsibilities of the president until elections take place. In return, President Saleh is granted immunity from prosecution, which undermines the forming of a new non-corrupted justice system.
Precisely how far the people of Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen have come to gain their rights and privileges as citizens remains unclear. The initial demand throughout the mass demonstrations across the region had boiled down to a complete and grassroots change of regime, hence the revolutions.
Also witnessing mass demonstrations are Syria and Bahrain. Under a media blackout inside and out, specific details about demonstrations in Syria remain vague. We do, however, know that there are Syrians who are massacred in large numbers on a daily basis, with Al Assad’s regime showing no signs of collapse and no will for negotiating with protesters. In Bahrain, demonstrations at Manama’s Lulu Roundabout escalated in March, then quieted down following a serious crackdown by Bahraini authorities. Bahrainis continue to organize demonstration in protest.
Yet, evidence indicates that poverty and unemployment rates remain relatively unchanged. Authorities are still continuously
abusing citizens. Human rights violations have not come close to reaching their end, and not without reason. So far, the journey has been a complex obstacle course, characterized by international pressure on governments in an attempt to secure foreign interests. Another factor significantly hindering progress is the absence of leaders or spokespersons to clearly list demands of protesters and to sit at the bargaining table when and if necessary. Furthermore, one of the factors that has proven to be a big obstacle is that most demonstrations are peaceful and most demonstrators are unarmed, and may be armed with nothing but rocks. Because a state, represented by the oppressive regime, is by definition the entity that holds a monopoly over violence, the basic survival and endurance of the unarmed protesters becomes a significant challenge. The figureheads currently in power in the region have become preoccupied with securing their own interests and are continuously trying to defenestrate the demands of the demonstrations. Instead of investing in the struggling local economies, heads of state are betting on suppressing the demonstrations and undoubtedly violating principles of human rights.
How long it will take for the revolutions to be completed is difficult to foresee. While a revolution may change a regime and its figureheads overnight, social change may require quite a few years to bloom. Any nonpolitical change needs to start from its seed to ensure that change is in fact deep-rooted. While Tunisia seems to be undergoing a relatively speedy transition, the year ahead of the rest of the MENA region will most likely be a continuation of the obstacle course that has begun earlier this year as signs of deep-rooted change and democratic transition seem obscure.
One year ago, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze out of frustration and despair. Today, economic, social, and political conditions in the region have not been fully altered to benefit their constituents and ameliorate their frustration and well-founded concerns. As the future of the region remains uncertain, a cool breeze is yet to blow strongly enough to put out the flame first lit one year ago. In memory of Bouazizi, the struggle to make a living remains.
Filed Under Arab Spring, MENA, Mohamed Bouazizi, uprising