The Current

A society 'awakened': How Mohamed Bouazizi sparked the Arab Spring, and inspired hope in future generations

A decade after Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation sparked an uprising across the Arab world, the Tunisian fruit vendor’s legacy continues to bring people hope, says a Canadian political scientist.

The Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire in 2010, igniting a wave of protest and political change

Mohammed Bouazizi is depicted on the facade of a post office in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, on Dec. 11, 2020. The produce vendor's death unleashed the Arab Spring uprisings. (Riadh Dridi/The Associated Press)

Story Transcript

A decade after Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation sparked an uprising across the Arab world, the Tunisian fruit vendor's legacy continues to bring people hope, says a Canadian political scientist.

"I don't think you can … put the genie back in the bottle on that," said Bessma Momani, a University of Waterloo professor and senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

"Society is more awakened. It is more conscious of … government corruption."

That awakening began 10 years ago, on Dec. 17, 2010, when a Tunisian municipal inspector confiscated Bouazizi's produce and wares as he was working at his fruit stand. She argued he didn't have a permit to sell produce. Bouazizi's family alleges the inspector then publicly humiliated Bouazizi by slapping him and spitting in his face. 

But when Bouazizi went to the local governor's office to complain about the incident, he was ignored. So he went to a local store to buy paint thinner, returned to the governor's office, and lit himself on fire outside the building as cars passed by. 

Bouazizi died of his injuries on Jan. 4, 2011. But his final act emboldened Tunisians fed up with government corruption to flood the streets in protest, demanding their longtime president step down. Soon, other countries in the Middle East and North Africa followed suit in a movement now known as the Arab Spring.

Unemployment, corruption still a challenge

Momani told The Current's Matt Galloway that what happened in Tunisia inspired people to imagine a more positive future for themselves and their families. For the first time in their lives, many young people felt a sense of pride and optimism about their dreams, she said.

However, there have been struggles since then. In Tunisia, unemployment remains high and corruption rampant, according to Al Jazeera.

Bessma Momani says people in the Arab world continue to fight corruption through acts of everyday protest. (The Canadian Press)

That has caused some people to give up "hope for change inside their countries," opting instead to emigrate elsewhere, said Momani, who has a PhD in political science and government.

"Unfortunately, that means many people, particularly those who are kind of on the coastline, taking to the rickety boats again to cross the Mediterranean to Europe," she said.

But Momani stresses that those galvanized by the Arab Spring have not "turned their backs on their countries."

"In fact, what I find is that the diaspora movement is more energized than ever," she said. 

I don't think that awakening is gone. It's very much there. It's just you have to look for it in new ways.- Bessma Momani, political scientist

In places like Germany, for example, artists, filmmakers and investigative journalists are flourishing, she explained, while films on taboo topics are changing the conversation in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, other Arab communities are demanding change in more "discreet" ways. 

In Saudi Arabia, Momani explained, women who are fed up with the patriarchy will sometimes wear their abaya (a long, dark robe) inside out in an act of everyday protest.

"I don't think that awakening is gone," Momani said. "It's very much there. It's just you have to look for it in new ways."


Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Julie Crysler.

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