Three years ago, Tunisian dictator Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali was forced to relinquish power in the north African country. The momentous event saw the beginning of historic upheavals in the Middle East that would be called the Arab Spring. Weeks ago on December 17, 2011, Mohammed Bouazizi, a vegetable seller was spat at and insulted by a policewoman who seized his cart.
Refused a hearing by local officials in the town of Sidi Bouzid, the 26-year-old poured fuel over himself and set himself afire. All the high school Tunisian graduate had wanted was his cart back, and he was ready to pay a fine equivalent to $7. But the insult was too much for him to bear.
Bouazizi’s self-immolation act sparked a chain of protests across the country of 11 million. To tamp down the rage, Ben Ali visited the man in hospital, but the public would have none of it. They were fed up with 23 years of authoritarian rule and the resulting poverty and grind had steeled up their resolve. The Tunisian leader was forced to step down and fled the country on January 15.
The rest is history. Nobody had predicted that the Tunisian revolution would be the precursor to longtime Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak being thrown out and Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi being lynched after sustained protests. Soon Syria would see the beginning of a mutiny that continues till this day. All Bouazizi had wanted was to continue being the breadwinner for his family. He would come home tired after pushing the vegetable cart through all day. The victim of Ben Ali’s misrule aspired for a pickup truck that would help him move around town and hawk his wares more easily.
It is more than symbolic that Egypt, one of the marquees of the revolts, held a referendum over a new constitution yesterday. Talk of military rule led by Army chief Gen Abdel Fattah Al Sisi notwithstanding, Egypt has turned quite a few pages of its post Arab Spring history. The polarisation that has set in by the removal of elected President Mohamed Mursi and the military throwing its weight around the seat of power has led to a quasi-structure of governance emerging in the nation, which has historically lent form to the politics of the Middle East.
Tunisia, a former French colony, has been found wanting in providing a stable government since the revolt. The relatively liberal Islamist party Ennahda has grappled with resistance from secular forces in the country.
Though Egypt is close to getting a new constitution, Tunisians are still clamouring for one three years after the revolt. Amid protests and despair, it would be the country’s new charter that will decide its future.