My man of the year: Mohamed Bouazizi
One of the peculiarities of the Turkish people is they love collective action on the Internet. Especially when a Western media outlet opens a campaign involving a Turkish figure, in large numbers Turks rush to their keyboards to cast their vote.
This happened again when Time magazine listed Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan as one of its nominees for being “man of the year.” The online votes both for and against Erdoğan skyrocketed, indicating many Turks either passionately love or passionately hate their country’s leader (this is not the world’s most chilled-out nation, really).
However, with all due respect to Mr. Erdoğan, my personal vote went to a heroic individual who until a year ago only used to be loved only by his family and friends but has become a beacon of freedom in the hearts of millions: Mohamed Bouazizi.
The 27-year-old Mohamed was a street vendor in Tunisia, the small North African nation which used to be ruled by the corrupt and brutal tyranny of a disgusting man named Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. This secularist dictatorship had suppressed not just religion – with a ban on headscarves, for example – but also suffocated the economy, making life unbearable for all citizens except the privileged elite. This was the Muslim equivalent of the Kingdom of Herod, whose patron Rome was none other than the ultimate colonizer of North Africa, i.e. France.
All Mohamed could do under this tyranny to support his large family was to sell produce on the streets of the town of Sidi Bouzid. He had lost his father when he was three, and he had to support his mother, uncle and younger siblings, including a sister who attended university, by making only $140 per month on average.
But even this was not tolerated by the system. On the morning of Dec. 17, 2010, Mohamed began his workday early in the morning only to be harassed by the local police, whose job was to extract bribes from people who tried to make ends meet. Reportedly, a female municipal official slapped Mohamed in the face, confiscated his weighing scales and tossed aside his produce cart.
Being so humiliated by this arrogant official, Mohamed ran to the governor’s office in order to complain and to ask for his scales back. But nobody listened. “If you don’t see me, I’ll burn myself,” Mohamed protested, but again no one cared. Then, in his frustration, he picked up a can of gasoline from a nearby gas station and returned to the governor’s office shouting, “How do you expect me to make a living?” Then he set himself on fire.
Mohamed’s terribly burnt body fought death for more than two weeks in the hospital but on the 18th day, he passed away. Thousands gathered at his funeral. They not only paid respect to the dignity of their countryman but also swore to take his murderers down.
That is how the Arab Spring began. The spirit of Mohamed rallied millions of his fellow Arabs against tyranny in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and elsewhere. Masses of the Muslim Middle East proved they don’t love to live under dictatorships, as some “experts” in the West have foolishly claimed, and toppled the dictators the West has hypocritically supported for decades.
This Arab quest for freedom will go on, and none of the thugs of region, from Bashar al-Assad in Syria to his backers in Tehran, will be able to stop it. Nor will the Saudis be able to keep their society in a golden cage forever. For the genie of freedom is out of the bottle. And the spirit of Mohamed Bouazizi, peace be upon him, is out there to guide millions of other ordinary heroes.