Mohamed Bouazizi. Anyone who believes that technology saturation, mutually-assured nuclear destruction and globalization has deprived our era of romanticism need merely Google his name. What chasms lay between you, gentle reader, and an indigent 27-year-old Tunisian who immolated himself on an otherwise mundane Friday morning in December? And how could he have known that his violent end would mark the beginning of peaceful movements across the Maghreb?
His act, like many suicides in from Sharm el-Sheikh to Islamabad, was inherently pathological but also explicitly political. Nothing about his short biography leads me to believe that his grievances went beyond garden-variety Middle Eastern (or, if you like, North African) corruption. His suicide was basically over a little nose-bloodying by some municipal thugs in lieu of an unpaid bribe. I, for one, would have put a cold lamb T-bone on his face and said, “Suck it up, Mo. Shit happens.” But the young street vendor took his complaint downtown, was rebuffed by a local governor, and set himself on fire before lunchtime. Therein lies the point of the sword. The majority of South Tunisians, Tunisians, North Africans, and citizens across the region and the entire world think more about day-to-day pains in the ass and humiliations than eternity in paradise or a fiery grave. But corruption, unlike terrorism, rarely kills, so it seldom inspires revolutions and strengthens stable dictatorships. But when it does…
Many have attributed the success of the uprisings to the not-at-all-secret weapon known as Facebook. Putting aside this paternalistic American interpretation of recent history, I feel there are at least two other connections between the effect of Bouazizi’s suicide and the rise of Facebook itself. First off, Mark Zuckerberg was named Time’s Person of the Year seven years after starting Facebook and two days before Bouazizi, the real Person of the Year, ended his own life in Sidi Bouzid. Not that that shit matters, but shouldn’t they wait until the year ends to declare it? Doesn’t December count? Is Bouazizi eligible next year? Will Time exist next year?
Facebook thrives on the most shallow but common and immediate concerns of its users. Within five years (and without the help of Facebook), it involved almost 10% of all living humans. Similarly, radical Muslims may cynically conclude that Bouazizi’s suicide lacked the profundity of purely religious martyrdom. But that, Al-Qaeda, is just what you don’t seem to get nowadays! Bouazizi’s message of frustration with corrupt officials is common, current, and relevant to everyone from the North African kleptocracies to the Gulf monarchies and beyond, and that’s why it turned into a Saraha sandstorm.
As Libya teeters on the brink of anarchy, we must constantly remind ourselves that the death of Mohamed Bouazizi inspired these events. No warrior, no William Wallace nor Joan of Arc he, but a rare symbol of defiance against the ancient scourge of corruption nonetheless. Democracy is an antidote to corruption, so I would circumstantially call these “pro-democracy” movements. All Bouazizi wanted was the audience of a local governor. Otherwise, Hosni Mubarak would be busy applying another coat of Just For Men in the presidential palace this very instant.
However, before the United States violates the Pottery Barn rule in Libya, we should consider the way Hamid Karzai crafted the new Afghan bureaucracy into one of the greasiest in the world, not to mention the graft that characterized the creation of a new government in Iraq. Only the newly empowered citizens of Tunisia and Egypt (and, hopefully, Libya) can ultimately determine if they can do any better.