26 Dec 2011

Mohamed Bouazizi changed the world in 2011

As Channel 4 News asks you who you think changed the world the most in 2011, Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jonathan Rugman makes the case for a young fruit and vegetable seller from Tunisia.

A fruit and vegetable seller changed the world most in 2011, though tragically he was not alive to witness it. And with the benefit of hindsight over the last twelve months, it seems entirely appropriate that a poor young Arab like Mohamed Bouazizi should symbolise a year in which remarkable change was engineered by the anger and bravery of ordinary people across the Arab world.

Who changed the world in 2011? Check out who the other Channel 4 News correspondents nominated

Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight on 17 December last year, outside the Governor’s office of a small town in Tunisia called Sidi Bouzid. A few weeks later I visited the spot where it happened, which had been daubed with red paint in the middle of the road and nicknamed the “place of the Martyr”.

Local people have different versions of events, but it seems that Mr Bouazizi’s wooden vegetable cart had been confiscated because he didn’t have a licence to trade. When he tried to get it back, a female official slapped him in the face, though she denies this. Mr Bouazizi kept his cart just across the street from the Governor’s office. He walked across the road, covered himself with paint thinner and set himself alight in protest.

While Mr Bouazizi was admitted to hospital with burns which eventually killed him, his cousin began filming demonstrations outside the Governor’s office with his mobile phone. It was this piece of technology which transformed how protests are organised and spread via social media and eventually broadcast; and this “citizen journalism” which has transformed my job as a reporter of this year’s extraordinary events.

Watch Jonathan Rugman’s report: The roots of Tunisia’s revolution

I saw the phone which Mr Bouazizi’s cousin used, and I saw Mohamed’s wooden cart and weighing scales, along with the melted red plastic trays in which he kept his vegetables until they were caught by the flames of his self-immolation. If a museum ever archives this year of uprisings and revolutions, these items deserve pride of place.

The Bouazizi simple family home was abuzz with visitors when I arrived. A reporting team from Al Jazeera had got there earlier and was busy erecting a shiny satellite dish on a medieval-looking courtyard wall. It was Al Jazeera which first broadcast the protests from dirt poor Sidibouzid, and I watched as Al Jazeera now broadcast a live interview with Mr Bouazizi’s mother, Mannoubia, across the Arab world.

As I watched Mannoubia speak, I knew that something incredible was happening; from a single act of desperation, to protests filmed on mobile phone, to social media and television circulation, here was a new chain of communication of untold power which had developed within the space of a few weeks. I didn’t know it would unleash a chain of events which would unsettle and eventually unseat Arab despots and dictators a very long way from Sidi Bouzid, but I knew the potential for social turmoil was there.

Pride tinged with shame

Mr Bouazizi’s mother was proud of her 23-year-old son, though still short of sleep from the grief surrounding his death. We were speaking a week after Tunisia’s revolution, so she knew that his self-sacrifice had led to the flight of Ben Ali, Tunisia’s President. The fall of Mubarak in Egypt and death of Gaddafi in Libya were still to come. But Mrs Bouazizi’s pride was also tinged with shame. She was a widow and had failed to provide Mohamed with a proper education, which is why he was selling vegetables from a cart in the first place.

She also hinted to me that her son had never intended to inspire a revolution. She suggested that his unhappiness was his own affair which had suddenly and disconcertingly been appropriated by millions of people he had never met.

Posters of Mohamed Bouazizi show him with a broad smile and wearing a black leather jacket. A young man who deserved better than the state oppression and economic failure on offer in a town where youth unemployment was and still is upwards of forty percent.

State oppression and economic failure. These were the twin drivers of the Arab Spring, along with acts of desperation by ordinary people. And it was Mohamed Bouazizi who unwittingly gave those people their courage; the courage to let their anger get the better of their fear.

Follow @jrug on Twitter.