Tunisia fetes poor town where revolt year began

By Paul Schemm

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Dec. 17 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

Manoubiyeh Bouazizi, the mother of Mohamed Bouazizi, the local fruit vendor who set himself on fire Dec. 17, stands next to his picture at the family house, in the town of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, Tuesday March 8, 2011. The desperate act set off mass protests that brought down Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in less than a month and inspired others who toppled autocratic Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, launched an armed rebellion against Libyan despot Moammar Gadhafi, and rattled governments in Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere.

Giorgos Moutafis, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

SIDI BOUZID, Tunisia — It was in this hardscrabble town in Tunisia's arid interior that exactly one year ago 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 in 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 are part of a festival for the revolution in Sidi Bouzid starting Saturday, to honor the vendor and the protesters whose indignance 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 the 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.

European tourists knew Tunisia under former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali for its sandy beaches and cosmopolitan ways, but for many of its people it 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.

The new president even announced on Friday that he was going to sell off his predecessor's many palaces to fund employment programs.

It was one year ago that Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of the Sidi Bouzid town hall after he was publicly slapped and humiliated by a policewoman 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 around 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.

At first it was just local unrest, until clandestinely shot videos started popping up on Facebook and other social networking sites, inspiring youths across the country.

The focus of the protests soon moved to the capital Tunis as tens of thousands braved tear gas and battled police along the elegant, tree-lined boulevards. An estimated 265 Tunisians died in that month of protests that slowly drew the world's attention.

And then abruptly it was over. After Ben Ali's army refused to shoot the protesters and his security forces wavered, Ben Ali fled and flew to Saudi Arabia with his family on Jan. 14.

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 commander in chief 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.

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