Thousands gathered in a Tunisian town to mark the first anniversary of their country's revolution with a statue of the cart of the vegetable-seller whose self-immolation inspired a wave of popular revolt that became known as the Arab Spring.

Tunisia's new leaders together with thousands of others took part in a festival starting Saturday in Sidi Bouzid honouring the vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, the revolution, and the protesters whose anger snowballed into a nationwide and then region-wide phenomenon.

The ceremony on Saturday was attended by the Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia's president, where a giant statue Bouazizi,  was unveiled.

Insurrections in the region lead to subsequent elections in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco.

As the country that started the Arab Spring, Tunisia appears to be the farthest along in its transformation, having held its freest elections ever that brought to power a moderate Islamist party that most had thought had been oppressed out of existence.

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Manoubiyeh Bouazizi, the mother of Mohamed Bouazizi, stands next to a photo of her son who set himself on fire after police confiscated his vegetable cart and produce. (Giorgos Moutafis/Associated Press)

Previously, Tunisia under former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was renowned among European tourists for its sandy beaches and cosmopolitan ways. But for most of its people, Ben Ali's presidency was 23 years of suffocating iron-fisted rule.

Now a human rights activist is president, and an Islamist politician who was jailed by Ben Ali for 15 years is the prime minister at the head of a coalition of left, liberal and religious parties.

"Mohammed Bouazizi restored the dignity to the Tunisian people," said Marzouki, made president this week as part of a governing coalition. Marzouki had struggled to promote human rights during Ben Ali's long reign and was twice imprisoned.

Marzouki announced on Friday that he was going to sell off his predecessor's many palaces to fund employment programs.

One year ago, Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of the Sidi Bouzid town hall after he was publicly slapped and humiliated by a policewoman reprimanding him for selling his vegetables without a license. He suffered full-body burns, and died soon afterward.

Until then, he had spent his days pushing a cart to sell his vegetables, but when his wares were confiscated and his pleas for restitution ignored by town officials, something snapped and a young man who had never left Tunisia transformed the Middle East.

Protest spread after videos posted

His act struck a chord in the impoverished interior of the country, where unemployment is still estimated at 28 per cent.

The demonstrations began in Sidi Bouzid but soon spread to the nearby city of Kasserine and surrounding small towns. At first it was just local unrest, until clandestinely shot videos started popping up on Facebook and other social networking sites, inspiring youths across the country.

The focus of the protests soon moved to the capital Tunis as tens of thousands braved tear gas and battled police along the elegant, tree-lined boulevards. An estimated 265 Tunisians died in that month of protests that slowly drew the world's attention.

And then on Jan. 14 it was over. After Ben Ali's army refused to shoot protesters and his security forces wavered, he fled to Saudi Arabia with his family .

Not even three weeks later, Egypt's army too turned on its commander in chief and 82-year-old Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt for almost three decades as the quintessential symbol of Middle East status quo, suddenly resigned

Four days later, protesters hit the streets in Libya's second largest city of Benghazi, while Yemen began experiencing demonstrations of its own. Morocco also sprouted a pro-democracy movement that forced the king to scramble to make reforms, and eventually even Syria -- a nation famous for its repression -- was awash with protests.

If the new government succeeds, even as the other countries in the region struggle with the complicated aftermaths of their own pro-democracy movements, Tunisia could for a second time inspire the Arab world.