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Tunisia: The last hours of Mohamed Bouazizi

By Frida Dahmani
Posted on Thursday, 17 December 2020 17:43

Bouazizi on the avenue that bears his name, in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia
Portrait of Mohamed Bouazizi on the avenue that bears his name, in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia © Ons Abid for GJA

Ten years ago to the day, the street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to denounce the precariousness and bullying of the authorities. If his name has long rhymed with revolution, today it evokes a disillusioned future.

In the square of the governorate of Sidi Bouzid (Centre), stands Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26 year-old, itinerant vegetable seller. He feels as if he were branded with a red-hot iron. Fédia Hamdi, municipal agent, has just confiscated his scale.

It is not the first time that the young man – whose real name is Tarak, but who is commonly called Mohamed, like his father, who died a few years ago – has been subjected to what he feels is bullying. But this time, he tries to defend his property and, in the quarrel, is said to have touched the chest of Fédia Hamdi, who slaps him.

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The legend is built around this brief but founding incident: an established order deaf to the demands of a youth hungry for social justice, dignity and freedom – the watchwords of the revolution – and a woman who humiliates a man in public.

Public shame

It is contempt; a “hogra” or shame that Mohamed Bouazizi cannot bear. The humiliation is compounded by the spectre of hunger, since the municipal police confiscated all the merchandise of the young bachelor, who has his family to support. His journey is similar to that of thousands of anonymous people working in the informal sector who are unable to slip over a few bills in exchange for a permit.

His parents’ income – his mother works in the fields and his stepfather is a mason – is uncertain and very insufficient. Bouazizi has had to provide for his six siblings since the eldest left home; a big word for this rough house of a few square metres located at the end of an alley in the cloaca of the Cité Nour. The Bouazizi live sparsely but with dignity – an important principle for this family from the Hamama tribe.

It is Friday, 17 December 2010, less than an hour before the weekly prayer. Mohamed cannot bear this public shame. “He went to the town hall to complain, nobody wanted to receive him. Then he tried at the governor’s house. Three times. He was chased away. It wasn’t the first time that his merchandise was seized, but getting slapped by a woman in the street burned him inside. It’s not acceptable here,” his mother told reporters, who had invaded the usually deserted alley.

© Ons Abid for GJA

Ten years later, the problem of youth unemployment in Sidi Bouzid has not been solved.

“Here, the poor have no right to live.”

Mad with rage, Bouazizi tries to be noticed, takes a can of flammable product, returns to the governorate, shouts his anger and sprinkles himself with the threat of immolating himself in fire. “He was hoping that someone would come out of the governorate to give him back his equipment,” says Hatem, an unemployed man who witnessed the scene. And that’s the tragedy: he lights a lighter provocatively and immediately sets himself on fire.

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“Shortly before, he laughed with his friends who tried to dissuade him from committing the irreparable,” recalls Mongia, who will try to extinguish the flames with his djellaba. From his office in the square, lawyer Salhi Daher is alerted by the shouts. He takes photos of the charred body, which he sends to international news channels. He considers that “Mohamed Bouazizi has freed people’s tongues”.

“Here, the poor have no right to live,” said Mohamed, referring to the difficulties of the region of Sidi Bouzid, but he was not a leader or a militant or an activist. He worked hard for his cause to realise just one demand: to live decently and with dignity. Taken to hospital, he died on 4 January 2011.

Yellowed portrait

Mohamed then becomes a hero, the icon of a revolution that some will baptize, romantically, the “Jasmine Revolution”. The name will not stick. Very prosaically, Tunisians now refer to it by the expression “Revolution of the wheelbarrow”, in reference to the hollow bellies of those who lose their lives trying to earn a few pennies.

It puts into perspective the praise and enthusiasm that prevailed in 2010. “Nobody in Sidi Bouzid considers Bouazizi as an example anymore”, concedes an agronomist of the region.

Lamine, Mohamed’s cousin, said that at the time he had helped to instrumentalise the drama. “He wasn’t the first to set himself on fire; there had been other cases, notably in Monastir and Kairouan, but no one paid any attention to them,” explains a trade unionist who had relayed Mohamed’s gesture on social networks and to press agencies.

The Museum of the Revolution, which never saw the light of day, in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. Ons Abid for GJA

Today, Bouazizi is forgotten, when he is not squarely blamed for the failure of the Revolution. His giant portrait on the wall of the post office is fading and yellowing under the sun, while passers-by pretend to forget that everything started from here. Few go to his grave to say a prayer. His family, after moving to a chic suburb of Tunis, has moved to Canada and no one speaks of Mohamed anymore.

Disenchantment

Sidi Bouzid has changed. Roads and lighting have been redone in poor neighbourhoods. The city, where economic investment is minimal, has a new governorate, a second police station, a market, a semi-Olympic swimming pool (closed due to the high cost of heating), and a Drama Centre complete with an auditorium that has no seats. It is counting on international funding to build a university hospital and a wholesale market.

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But this does not mean that the region’s problems, including unemployment and corruption, have been solved. As everywhere else in Tunisia, times are full of regrets and “it was better before”.

It is as if, after the wind of hope that blew over the region, the country, and far beyond, disenchantment had caught up with the Bouzidians. “You only have to see the famous wheelbarrow abandoned in front of the closed door of a museum of the revolution that never saw the light of day to understand what is happening in Sidi Bouzid,” sighs Lamine.

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