A year ago on Saturday, in a hardscrabble town in Tunisia’s arid interior, the death knell sounded for the decades-old system of dictatorships across the Arab world.
With a desperate act of self-immolation, a 26-year-old fruit-seller from Sidi Bouzid unwittingly unleashed a year of turmoil that toppled at least three autocrats in a region once thought to be immune to democracy.
Tunisia’s new leaders together with thousands of others took part in a festival starting on Saturday in the town honoring the vendor, the revolution and the protesters whose anger snowballed into a nationwide and then region-wide phenomenon.
The changes in the Arab world over the past 12 months cannot be overstated. A region synonymous with stagnant authoritarian republics and monarchies is suddenly rife with change — for better or worse.
The biggest winners so far appear to be the long-repressed Islamist parties, which didn’t always lead the revolts, but in subsequent elections in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco were the best organized and least tainted by the old regimes.
As the country that started the Arab Spring, Tunisia appears to be the farthest along in its transformation, having held its freest elections ever that brought to power a moderate Islamist party that most had thought had been oppressed out of existence.
Tunisia, under former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was renowned among European tourists for its sandy beaches and cosmopolitan ways. However, for most of its people, Ben Ali’s presidency was 23 years of suffocating iron-fisted rule.
Now a human rights activist is president and an Islamist politician, who was jailed by Ben Ali for 15 years, is the prime minister at the head of a coalition of left, liberal and religious parties.
One year ago, Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of the Sidi Bouzid town hall after he was publicly slapped and humiliated by a police officer reprimanding him for selling his vegetables without a license. He suffered full-body burns and died soon afterward.
Until then, he had spent his days pushing a cart to sell his vegetables, but when his wares were confiscated and his pleas for restitution ignored by town officials, something snapped and a young man who had never left Tunisia transformed the Middle East.
His act struck a chord in the impoverished interior of the country, where unemployment is still estimated at 28 percent.
The demonstrations began in Sidi Bouzid, but soon spread to the nearby city of Kasserine and surrounding small towns and later to the capital city.
An estimated 265 Tunisians died in that month of protests that slowly drew the world’s attention.
And then on Jan. 14 it was over. After Ben Ali’s army refused to shoot protesters and his security forces wavered, he fled to Saudi Arabia with his family.
Experts were quick to explain how Tunisia was unique and the Jasmine Revolution was an isolated event — until 11 days later tens of thousands occupied Cairo’s Tahrir Square and began chanting the same slogan heard in Tunisia: “The people want the fall of the regime.”
Not even three weeks later, Egypt’s army too turned on its leader and 82-year-old Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt for almost three decades as the quintessential symbol of Middle East status quo, suddenly resigned.
Four days later, protesters hit the streets in Libya’s second-largest city of Benghazi, while Yemen began experiencing demonstrations of its own.
Morocco also sprouted a pro-democracy movement that forced the king to scrabble to make reforms and eventually even Syria — a nation famous for its repression — was awash with protests.
Bouazizi’s plight was familiar across the region where growth had not provided jobs, education was poor and widespread restrictions on freedoms left a sense of hopeless frustration.
One year later, many countries are freer, but the economic situation remains grim.
Six weeks after its elections, Tunisia is forming its new government, but for the people of Sidi Bouzid, it feels like nothing has changed.
Even during October’s elections, when much of the country was euphoric, the young men of Sidi Bouzid sat sullenly in their cafes and complained that they had been forgotten.
Now the focus has returned to this small town surrounded by olive orchards and tall cactus groves, as thousands marched through the streets, watched fireworks and applauded the unveiling of a marble memorial of a vegetable seller’s cart surrounded by empty chairs symbolizing the fallen dictators.
Where once there had been little sign of Bouazizi’s sacrifice, the town’s main street has been renamed for him.
Tunisia’s leaders have promised that the interior will no longer be neglected and they say they have drawn up plans to rebalance investment away from the coast.
Marzouki has promised to “restore joy to this long marginalized region.”
If the new government succeeds, even as the other countries in the region struggle with the complicated aftermaths of their own pro-democracy movements, Tunisia could for a second time inspire the Arab world.
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