On December 17, 2010, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi had his produce confiscated by the police because he couldn’t afford to bribe them. Eyewitnesses allege a government official slapped and spat at him, taking away his scale and cart. Having gone into debt to purchase the goods and having no other means of support he went to the governor, who refused to see him. He was seen a few minutes later in traffic, screaming “How do you expect me to make a living?” and waving around a gasoline can. He then doused himself with fuel and lit himself on fire.
Before that day this act, known as self-immolation, had gained international attention in the 1960s when Buddhist monks began setting themselves on fire to protest their treatment by the South Vietnamese government. It is not a calculated political decision but an act of desperation, and its hopelessness can mobilize people to action.
Bouazizi died on January 4, 2011; ten days later, Tunisia’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia amid country-wide protests. Ben Ali had ruled Tunisia for over two decades and lost control of it in less than a month, all because of a routine government shakedown. This quickly became the new norm in the Middle East, as entrenched regimes found themselves swallowed and toppled by their own people. Only 11 days after Ben Ali’s exit from Tunisia, protesters began gathering across Egypt. Hosni Mubarak attempted to quash the protests using force, propaganda campaigns, political maneuvering, stalling tactics and eventually, live ammunition. Only 16 days passed before Mubarak resigned his position, ending his 30-year stint as President on February 11.
At each stage of the series of uprisings now known as the Arab Spring, social media was integral to the coordination and planning of protests, allowing activists to map crises in realtime and disseminate critical survival information, such as the location of sniper’s nests and military check points. It also gave protestors a global voice to broadcast information to the world at large, contradicting the damage control and disinformation spewing from their dictators.
But while progressive forces were building networks of solidarity, the security forces and dictators they were mobilizing against were also using social media to monitor dissent and learning from their neighboring sovereigns’ mistakes. Saudi Arabia led with an overwhelming military presence to strangle protest while announcing concessions and reforms intended to mollify the country. Other countries have cracked down viciously; the United Nations and Human Rights Watch both estimate the death toll in Syria to be around 5,000 and climbing. Libya’s civil war was protracted, with Muammar Gaddafi growing increasingly bloodthirsty, hostile and bizarre as the long siege wore on and the rebels closed in on Tripoli.
In October the Occupy Wall Street protests began, finding the revolutionary voice of a generation that many thought had none and exposing the hard, mean face of police brutality. The entire world watched protestors getting pepper sprayed, beaten, groped, stomped, their skulls fractured by projectiles; the aggregate of footage led a lot of people over the weeks and months to recall the George Orwell quote: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”
It has been a year since Bouazizi’s initial act of desperation, and while the movement hasn’t taken hold in every country that is in need of it, it has still provided a template for revolution, a living example of people retaking control of the government — which fascinates the citizens of the world and terrifies those who’d like to control it.
Only time will tell if repressive regimes adapt to shut down dissent all the more quickly, developing such sophisticated methods of crowd (and media) control they no longer need to fear revolt, or if this year proves indeed to be the beginning of an entirely new world.