Though his name wouldn’t ring a bell to most in this country, Mohamed Bouazizi was, without question, among the most influential individuals of our century thus far. The millions he unintentionally inspired teetered and toppled governments beginning with his own; in doing so, they rattled the global order and altered the course of politics even here in the United States, where many who never learned his name nonetheless know of him—the Tunisian produce vendor who, bullied one time too many by local police, went into the street just shy of noon on a mid-December day in 2010, doused himself in paint thinner, struck a match, and lit the world on fire.
That, at any rate, is how most popular accounts of the origins of the “Arab Spring” go. Even in the early days of the uprisings, that phrase seemed to understate the significance of what had begun in Tunisia. The wave of protests that Bouazizi’s self-immolation sparked would reach far beyond the Middle East in a matter of weeks—the following February, the Canadian magazine Adbusters would reference the protests in Tunisia and the subsequent demonstrations against Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in its fateful call for “A MILLION MAN MARCH ON WALL STREET”—and temporally, that “spring” of technologically facilitated mass action has lasted more than 12 years and counting now.
In Tunisia itself, protests have continued. While the de facto dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced out of the country and his office less than a month after Bouazizi’s death, the nation’s political tumults in the time since have both fueled and been fueled by the public’s still potent sociopolitical and economic discontent. In 2021, Kais Saied, the country’s sixth president since 2011, dismissed Parliament and began ruling by decree in response to demonstrations against his government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic; throughout this year, Tunisians have been taking to the streets yet again to protest Saied’s further consolidation of power in the time since. “In two years,” Samira Chaouachi, vice president of Tunisia’s Parliament, lamented in July, “he has destroyed all the institutions and democratic gains of the revolution.”
While the revolution is still commemorated each year in Tunisia, the optimism that took hold of the country in the wake of Ben Ali’s fall has withered. And in his new book, If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution, the journalist Vincent Bevins writes that Mohamed Bouazizi’s name is not only remembered but cursed in the very town that had once given him a hero’s burial. “Most people hate him,” a teen flatly informs Bevins near Bouazizi’s grave. Another local assessed Bouazizi more kindly, but with regret for all he had wrought. “I knew him,” he said. “He was a nice guy. But this revolution did not benefit the Tunisian people. Tunisia did not take one step forwards. It moved backwards.”
Of the 10 places that Bevins examines in his account of the most disruptive mass protest movements of the last decade or so—Bahrain, Brazil, Chile, Egypt, Hong Kong, South Korea, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, and Yemen—the same might be said of six more of them, Bevins contends. Repression has arguably deepened in Bahrain, Egypt, and Hong Kong. Brazil and Turkey both saw right-wing authoritarians come to power. And the events following the ouster of Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012 led to an ongoing civil war that has killed nearly 400,000 people thus far and produced what remains one of the world’s most acute humanitarian crises—at last count by the United Nations Population Fund, some 21.6 million Yemenis are thought to need basic aid and assistance of some kind today. [Continue reading…]