Image: Ground Zero 9/11/2010 (cc) Derek Rose
THE POLICEWOMAN WHO CONFISCATED the unlicensed produce stand of a young street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi in the tiny Tunisian village of Sidi Bouzid could not have known that her actions would light the fuse of revolution, not just in Tunisia, but across the Arab world. The twenty-six-year-old Bouazizi was one of millions of unemployed youth who make up the vast majority of the population of the Greater Middle East. This young, educated, and severely disenfranchised generation has come of age burdened by bone-crushing poverty and marginalized by corrupt, authoritarian regimes that have been funded and armed by western governments — most notably the United States — for decades.
The unemployment rate in Bouazizi's hometown is upwards of 30%. Like most of his fellow Tunisians — those without personal connections to the country's long running dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali — Bouazizi survived by doing odd jobs for a few dollars a day. Yet at every point in his young life, as he struggled to scrape a living out of the most menial and dehumanizing work, Bouazizi was confronted with the stark nepotism of Tunisian society, the rank corruption of government employees, and the hard fact that there wasn't, and would never be, anything to do about it.
That final thought — that this was the way of the world, that it could not be otherwise — must have gone through Bouazizi's mind when the policewoman approached him on the dusty streets of this impoverished town, 190 miles (300 km) south of the capital Tunis, and asked to see his license to operate the produce stand. In Tunisia, as in much of the Arab world, "license" is code for bakhsheesh. Bribe. What the policewoman meant was that she had not yet been paid to look the other way as young Bouazizi peddled his overripe fruits and vegetables for a few pennies each.
But Bouazizi had pooled all of his savings into just enough cash to buy the stand. He had nothing more to give. And so the policewoman shuttered it, roughing him up in the process. When the young man tried to seek recourse by going to a local municipality building and demanding an audience with a government official, he was told to go home. He would not even be heard.
That should have been the end of the story. There is, after all, nothing unique about what happened to Mohamed Bouazizi. His is the lot of the young and dispossessed of the Arab world. Three quarters of the region is under the age of 35; two-thirds is under 18. The median age in Tunisia is 30 years old, making it one of the oldest countries in the region. In Egypt the median age is 24. In Syria it is 22. In Yemen it is 18. Thanks to poor governance and a total lack of transparency, youth unemployment rates hover around 30% across the region. Those who have jobs, including university graduates, face low wages, extreme work conditions, and almost no chance for advancement.
Yet something had snapped in Mohamed Bouazizi. He had suddenly had enough. Enough of the clubby elite who engorged themselves on the flesh of the poor. Enough of the decrepit autocrats who pillaged the country's resources for their own profit. Enough of the lumbering bureaucr...