As people in the Middle East and North Africa continue to take to the streets in protest (the latest protests have occurred in Bahrain and Libya), I’ve grown more interested in how their protests began. The whole subject of popular movements intrigues me—how they start, how they maintain their momentum and how they change the status quo—and these definitely seem to be “organic,” from-the-ground-up movements.
It seems one of the very first sparks that led to these popular protests occurred in Tunisia, which has received relatively little attention in the Western press. Tunisians began taking to the streets in December after Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old street vendor in Sidi Bouzid, set himself on fire in protest for having his fruit and vending cart confiscated.
The sheer desperation that would drive a man to do that to himself is hard to imagine, but it did serve to ignite the simmering frustrations of the Tunisian people over unemployment and autocratic rule. In less than one month, the Tunisian president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, was forced to flee the country.
While I certainly don’t condone self-inflicted martyrdom, at least Bouazizi took out his despair on himself instead of seeking revenge with a machine gun or suicide bomb.
What would it take for you to set yourself on fire (figuratively speaking)? In light of Bouazizi’s example, the least we can do is ask ourselves the question.