A pushcart vendor’s desperate act galvanizes the Arab world

Five years since spark that started ‘Arab Spring’

It was five years ago that a vegetable-seller in Tunisia set himself alight, igniting weeks of demonstrations that led to the unseating of long-time ruler Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali – and setting off a chain of uprisings across the region.

BEN AROUS, TUNISIA (TUNISIAN GOVERNMENT) – It was five years ago that the first spark of the “Arab Spring” was lit, with a slap and an insult hurled at a young vegetable-seller in a small Tunisian town.

Residents of Sidi Bouzid say anger had been building for years before fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, igniting weeks of demonstrations that spread across the country.

Local authorities had confiscated Bouazizi’s unlicensed cart several times before, but the turning point for the 26-year-old, and for his town and ultimately his country, came on December 17, 2010.

The breadwinner in a family of eight, Bouazizi argued with a policewoman who took away his goods and scales. The policewoman gave him a slap in the face and a slur against his father, who died when he was three.

Without telling his family, Bouazizi bought a can of petrol and set himself on fire outside the provincial headquarters. He died of his burns on January 4, 2011.

Demonstrations demanding an end to corruption and oppression spread first across Sidi Bouzid province and then to the rest of the country.

In a bid to quell the unrest, veteran leader President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali announced in a television address that he would not seek a sixth term in office. He made sweeping concessions, saying security forces would no longer use live ammunition against protesters and promising freedom of the press and an end to Internet censorship.

But, determined to see an end to 23 years of repressive rule, Tunisians continued their protests.

Tunisia’s powerful main labour union held back in the early weeks but then swung behind the uprising and organised general strikes until Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14.

But the impact of the Tunisian uprising did not end there.

Just over a week later, on January 25, anti-government protests, publicised on social media websites, began across Egypt.

Thousands of demonstrators voiced their anger, complaining of poverty and repression in a “Day of Wrath”, and, in unprecedented scenes, police fought with thousands of Egyptians who defied a government ban to protest against President Hosni Mubarak.

On February 1, more than a million people around Egypt took to the streets, calling for an end to Mubarak’s 30-year rule rule.

On the 17th day of protests, Mubarak announced on February 10 that a national dialogue was under way to transfer power to the vice-president, but he refused to leave office immediately, as demanded by protesters.

However, a day later, Mubarak was forced to step down and a military council was formed to run the country’s affairs. Scenes of mass jubilation could be seen across the country with hundreds of thousands packed into Cairo’s Tahrir Square to celebrate the dawn of what they believed would be a new Egypt.

The events in Tunisia and Egypt prompted people elsewhere in the region to also rise up against their oppressive leaders.

In Bahrain, an anti-government “Day of Rage” took place on February 14.

Shi’ite protesters took to the streets to demand an elected government in the tiny Gulf Arab island where a Sunni king rules a Shi’ite majority.

The protests were largely led by educated Web-savvy youth who seemed largely disconnected from the country’s more traditionally conservative Shi’ite opposition groups.

The young activists professed a willingness to walk in front of tanks to get their demands and adopted the language of peaceful civil disobedience.

But the government viewed the demonstrations as the greatest challenge yet to the ruling al-Khalifa family.

On February 17, the police stormed the protest camp at Manama’s Pearl Roundabout, leaving at least seven dead.

With Saudi help, Bahrain crushed the demonstrations, but the kingdom has yet to resolve the conflict between majority Shi’ites and the Sunni-led monarchy they accuse of oppressing them.

Meanwhile in Yemen, the first few months of 2011 saw mass protests against the 33-year rule of President, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

A day of anti-government protests on February 3 brought more than 20,000 people on to the streets of Sanaa.

But despite promises to step down, Saleh refused to sign a deal that would transfer power.

After ten months of unrest and deteriorating security around the country, Saleh finally agreed to step down in November 2011, with elections taking place the following February.

However, separatist violence loomed over the vote, which had just a single candidate.

Unstable ever since the 2011 revolt toppled veteran president Saleh, Yemen finally plunged into civil war last year when the ex-leader joined forces with Houthi rebels to seize power, triggering a Gulf Arab military intervention.

In Libya, protests began in February 2011 against Muammar Gaddafi’s 42 years of one-man rule.

With anti-government protests in the eastern city of Benghazi, and a “day of rage” called on February 17, the government in the capital Tripoli orchestrated pro-government rallies, as Gaddafi vowed to clamp down on the demonstrations.

A bloody civil war raged for months, until the United Nations Security Council imposed a no-fly zone on the country and authorised “all necessary measures” — code for military action — to protect civilians against Gaddafi’s army.

Finally on August 21, rebel fighters entered Tripoli with little resistance and two days later, made their way into Gaddafi’s compound at Bab al-Aziziya.

Gaddafi himself escaped to his hometown, Sirte, where after several weeks, as he was trying to flee to the south of the country, he was captured and then killed by Libyan interim government forces, along with his son Mutassim.

Adding to the regional tumult of 2011, Syrians also rose up to demand the end of the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, with the southern city of Deraa becoming the cradle of the uprising.

Assad, facing the greatest challenge to 40 years of Baath Party rule, sought to crush the demonstrations that broke out in March, using mass arrests and heavy deployment of security forces, including an irregular Alawite militia known as shabbiha.

But although rights groups said in July that some 1,400 civilians had been killed, the protests grew.

What began as a peaceful protest movement calling for reforms in 2011 descended into civil war after the government crackdown and the almost five-year-old conflict now has now claimed over 250,000 lives.

Russia and the United States are now hoping to negotiate a peace deal between more than a dozen rebel fighting groups ranging from Islamists to Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups – but not Islamic State – next month.

The spark that led to the overthrow of Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali shocked the Arab world and shattered the image that its oppressive, army-backed rulers were immune to popular discontent.

The “Arab Spring” that followed saw Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh all deposed.

But the Tunisian transition to democracy has been a difficult model to follow and five years after the first protests, much of the region is still beset by conflict, instability and repression.