On this day ten years ago, at approximately 11:30 am on the morning of 17 December 2010, a twenty-six year-old Tunisian man, a street vendor from a village nearby the town of Sidi Bouzid, did something extraordinary. After acquiring a can of petrol, he took himself before the local governor’s office, doused his body, and set himself on fire. That man was Mohamed Bouazizi and his dramatic act of self-immolation was the spark that ignited the Arab Spring – the wave of protests and uprisings that shook rulers and rocked regimes across the Arab World from the winter of 2010-11 and onwards.
After being subjected to a public humiliation at the hands of heavy-handed officials who had confiscated his fruit and vegetable cart, Bouazizi tried to voice his grievances to the governor in Sidi Bouzid, who refused to give him a hearing. With his livelihood arbitrarily confiscated and without recourse to justice, that was when he took his ultimate action. In an interview with TIME Magazine in January 2011, not long after her son had died of his wounds in hospital, Bouazizi’s mother said that “Mohamed did what he did for the sake of his dignity.”
This demand for dignity captures why this moment was at once so significant and so powerful. Bouazizi’s experience resonated because it was symptomatic of wider problems and injustices experienced throughout the Middle East and North Africa. His desperation channelled popular anger at a world of paternalistic petrodollar states, self-serving security apparatuses, and kleptocratic strongmen, where economic opportunities were scarce and political rights were firmly restricted.
In Tunisia itself, Bouazizi’s act of protest quickly became a symbol of defiance that inspired an upsurge of opposition to the regime of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Within a month, on 14 January 2011, Ben Ali had fled the country for Saudi Arabia, relinquishing twenty-three years of personal rule and leaving Tunisia to begin its transition to a constitutional, civilian-led democracy.
The initial phase of Tunisia’s remarkable revolution was over, but the Arab Spring was just getting started. As the winter of 2010-11 progressed, the tide of revolt spread further – on 25 January 2011, Egypt witnessed its “Day of Wrath”, as protestors coordinated street demonstrations and converged on Cairo’s Tahrir Square. By 11 February, the country’s dictator, Hosni Mubarak, had resigned as president after it became clear that the army, long hostile to his plans to pass on his office to his son Gamal in hereditary succession, considered him to be a liability and refused to crack down on protestors.
Further uprisings then followed in what appeared to be a cascading, irresistible wave – protest movements mobilised in Yemen on 15 January 2011, setting in train a series of events that would eventually force President Ali Abdullah Saleh to agree to a Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered transfer of power in November. In quick succession, on 14 and 15 February, intense mass demonstrations sprang up in Bahrain and Libya respectively. In March, a brutal confrontation between the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and protestors in Syria had got underway.
Across the region, from Tahrir Square in Cairo to Taghir Square in Sana’a, the refrain of the Arab Spring, “The people want the fall of the regime”, could be heard. These sonorous words were painted on banners in Egypt, chanted at Bahrain’s Pearl Roundabout, and graffitied on city walls in Syria – a powerful call for change that echoed throughout the Arab World.
Alongside these uprisings, further protests – with a variety of different demands – also took place in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Iran’s Khuzestan province, which is home to a large number of Iranian Arabs. Some of these were placated with swift concessions from rulers, others were met with crackdowns and the strong arm of state security forces.
Despite the early hope and promise of these protests and revolutions, the Arab Spring quickly evolved into a harsher winter, leaving complex legacies, civil wars and dashed dreams in its wake. Only in Tunisia, it seems, has a relatively stable, if imperfect, post-authoritarian order emerged. As Tarek Masoud, Jason Brownlee, and Andrew Reynolds write in their 2015 book on the Arab Spring, the very use of the word “spring” carries a tragic “dual connotation of tremendous political potential and inevitable setback.”
And yet, after all the high hopes and bitter disappointments of the last ten years, the tremors and aftershocks of Mohamed Bouazizi’s act and the events that followed it are still having a profound impact on the world today. There is much to reflect upon. This is why I have gathered together voices to shed light on the significance of this ten-year anniversary. The contributors here are civilians, activists, journalists, writers, and academics from the Middle East and North Africa, and from outside – some of them participated in the uprisings across the Arab World a decade ago; others are expert observers. All of them have experienced and examined the forces unleashed by the Arab Spring in one way or another.
It is a privilege to present their views on this momentous date. Their reflections will help to ensure that the brave protestors who took to the streets and squares in the winter of 2010-11 to demand their dignity, fight for freedoms, and express their hopes for a better future are not forgotten. They write for those who cannot.
CAIRO, EGYPT – FEBRUARY 11: Anti-government demonstrators celebrate near Tahrir Square upon hearing the news of the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt. Crowds continued to pack Tahrir Square, the epicenter of an eighteen-day protest and occupation that climaxed in the resignation of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and the implementation of military rule. (Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images).