SIDI BOUZID, TUNISIA — On the evening before Mohammed Bouazizi lit a fire that would burn across the Arab world, the young fruit vendor told his mother that the oranges, dates and apples he had to sell were the best he’d ever seen. “With this fruit,” he said, “I can buy some gifts for you. Tomorrow will be a good day.”
For years, Bouazizi had told his mother stories of corruption at the fruit market, where vendors gathered under a cluster of ficus trees on the main street of this scruffy town, not far from Tunisia’s Mediterranean beaches. Arrogant police officers treated the market as their personal picnic grounds, taking bagfuls of fruit without so much as a nod toward payment. The cops took visible pleasure in subjecting the vendors to one indignity after another — fining them, confiscating their scales, even ordering them to carry their stolen fruit to the cops’ cars.
Before dawn on Friday, Dec. 17, as Bouazizi pulled his cart along the narrow, rutted stone road toward the market, two police officers blocked his path and tried to take his fruit. Bouazizi’s uncle rushed to help his 26-year-old nephew, persuading the officers to let the rugged-looking young man complete his one-mile trek.
The uncle visited the chief of police and asked him for help. The chief called in a policewoman who had stopped Bouazizi, Fedya Hamdi, and told her to let the boy work.
Hamdi, outraged by the appeal to her boss, returned to the market. She took a basket of Bouazizi’s apples and put it in her car. Then she started loading a second basket. This time, according to Alladin Badri, who worked the next cart over, Bouazizi tried to block the officer.
“She pushed Mohammed and hit him with her baton,” Badri said.
Hamdi reached for Bouazizi’s scale, and again he tried to stop her.
Hamdi and two other officers pushed Bouazizi to the ground and grabbed the scale. Then she slapped Bouazizi in the face in front of about 50 witnesses.
Bouazizi wept with shame.
“Why are you doing this to me?” he cried, according to vendors and customers who were there. “I’m a simple person, and I just want to work.”
Revolutions are explosions of frustration and rage that build over time, sometimes over decades. Although their political roots are deep, it is often a single spark that ignites them — an assassination, perhaps, or one selfless act of defiance.
In Tunisia, an unusually cosmopolitan Arab country with a high rate of college attendance, residents watched for 23 years as Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s dictatorship became a grating daily insult. From Tunis — the whitewashed, low-rise capital with a tropical, colonial feel — to the endless stretches of olive and date trees in the sparsely populated countryside, the complaints were uniform: It had gotten so you couldn’t get a job without some connection to Ben Ali’s family or party. The secret police kept close tabs on ordinary Tunisians. And the uniformed police took to demanding graft with brazen abandon.
Still, the popular rebellion that started here and spread like a virus to Egypt, Libya and the Persian Gulf states, and now to Yemen and Syria, was anything but preordained. The contagion, carried by ordinary people rather than politicians or armies, hits each country in a different and uncontrollable way, but with common characteristics — Friday demonstrations, Facebook connections, and alliances across religious, class and tribal lines. This wave of change happened because aging dictators grew cocky and distant from the people they once courted, because the new social media that the secret police didn’t quite understand reached a critical mass of people, and because, in a rural town where respect is more valued than money, Mohammed Bouazizi was humiliated in front of his friends.
After the slap, Bouazizi went to city hall and demanded to see an official. No, a clerk replied. Go home. Forget about it.
Bouazizi returned to the market and told his fellow vendors he would let the world know how unfairly they were being treated, how corrupt the system was.
He would set himself ablaze.
“We thought he was just talking,” said Hassan Tili, another vendor.
A short while later, the vendors heard shouts from a couple of blocks away. Without another word to anyone, Bouazizi had positioned himself in front of the municipal building, poured paint thinner over his body and lit himself aflame.
The fire burned and burned. People ran inside and grabbed a fire extinguisher, but it was empty. They called for police, but no one came. Only an hour and a half after Bouazizi lit the match did an ambulance arrive.