Time magazine’s Person of the Year has been an annual tradition since 1927. Winners have been peacemakers (Gandhi and Martin Luther King) and warmongers (Hitler), heroes (Churchill) and villains (Stalin), liberators (Eisenhower) and dictators (Khomeini), moguls (Ted Turner), machines (the personal computer), pop stars (Bono), and politicians (Bill Clinton). According to Time, this year’s field of candidates includes SEAL Team 6 (which took down Osama bin Laden), Apple founder Steve Jobs, soccer superstar Lionel Messi, newly minted royal Kate Middleton, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy (whose assertive leadership impacted the Middle East, Africa, NATO, and the EU in 2011).
But if Time lives up to its own standard for determining person of the year – the person who “influenced the news most, for better or worse” – the answer is obvious. No person influenced global events and news – or the political fortunes of so many leaders and the political future of so many people – as much as Mohamed Bouazizi.
If the name doesn’t ring a bell, don’t worry. Bouazizi was not an inventor or philosopher, military strongman or freedom fighter. In fact, he wasn’t known at all until his death. But his death triggered an earthquake that is still shaking the Middle East and reshaping how the rest of the world interacts with this vital region and its peoples.
Bouazizi was a Tunisian vegetable seller who finally had enough of government regulation and humiliation last December after a police officer confiscated his vegetable cart because he didn’t have a permit. When Bouazizi tried to pay the fine, the police officer slapped him and spat in his face. When he tried to appeal to the officer’s higher-ups, he was dismissed and denied a hearing.
The humiliation and hopelessness – all triggered by government interference in his life and livelihood – overwhelmed Bouazizi to the point that the young street vendor set himself on fire. He died on Jan. 4, touching off a people’s revolution that toppled Tunisia’s dictator less than a fortnight later.
The shockwaves have spread across the Arab world. However, it should be noted that just as the Arab world is not a monolith, neither are the revolutions of the Arab Spring: Sunni-Shia dynamics, years of government brutality, and government indifference and corruption were just some of the driving forces behind the various uprisings.
That said, though the triggers may have been different, the targets were all the same: autocrats.
On Jan. 17, an Egyptian man, overwhelmed by the grinding poverty and lack of opportunity in his homeland, imitated Bouazizi’s horrific act of civil disobedience. Massive anti-government protests then broke out in Egypt. Cairo’s Tahrir Square became the new epicentre of the political earthquake. And in the span of three weeks, then-Egyptian-president Hosni Mubarak was toppled – after three decades in power. (Almost a year later, both Tahrir Square and the Egyptian people continue to simmer.)
As Mubarak’s one-man rule collapsed, Libyans in Benghazi began protesting then-Libyan-leader Moammar Gadhafi’s 41-year reign. But, unlike his neighbouring dictators, Gadhafi refused to go peacefully. Instead, his regime vowed to crush the Benghazi rebels, triggering a Libyan civil war. A range of factors – Libya’s oil wealth, the threat posed by a tidal wave of refugees washing into Europe, and the ghosts of Bosnia and Rwanda – compelled NATO leaders to support the rebel force with air and sea power. By June, Gadhafi’s writ had been shrunk to the city limits of Tripoli. By August, the rebels had taken Tripoli. And by October, Gadhafi was dead. The Arab Spring had claimed its third dictator.
The unrest wasn’t quarantined to North Africa, however. Fuelled by social media and satellite television, Bouazizi’s revolution jumped across the Red Sea and onto the Arabian Peninsula.
Yemen was rocked by violence that spiralled toward a full-blown civil war. After months of fighting, Yemen’s autocrat recently signed an agreement to transfer power and hold elections. But after 33 years under Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule, his opponents have their doubts.
Jordan weathered weeks of largely peaceful riots demanding parliamentary and economic reforms.
In Bahrain, the chaos ultimately forced the government to appeal to Saudi Arabia for assistance. Eager to prevent any threat to their monarchy, the Saudis agreed, enforcing their own version of the Brezhnev Doctrine by dispatching hundreds of troops and tanks to prop up the Bahraini regime.
In Syria, the revolution arrived late, but has lasted the longest. The protests were peaceful at the outset, but Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would not countenance any challenge to his rule. So the order came down to smash the protests and disperse the protesters. Assad’s henchmen have now killed an estimated 4,000 Syrians. Some of his soldiers have had enough and have switched sides, pushing Syria toward a Libya-style civil war.
It’s been almost a year since Bouazizi became so fed up with government intrusion in his life that he concluded death was better. His self-immolation was more than a condemnation of capricious, intrusive government. It was also a declaration in defence of freedom. Bouazizi may have never read Friedrich Hayek or John Locke, but his desperate act of defiance reminds us that it should be every person’s right to “preserve his property … his life, liberty and estate against the injuries and attempts of other men,” as Locke observed, and that private property is “the most important guarantee of freedom,” as Hayek explained.
Bouazizi understood this because he lived under a regime that did not. That regime is now gone, and the regional order that supported it is crumbling.
Reasonable people can, and do, disagree about whether the Arab Spring has opened the door to a freer Middle East, an Islamist takeover of the Middle East, or simply a time of great instability.
On the positive side, the Middle East’s revolutionaries are demanding freedom, opportunity, justice, and an end to government corruption, just as Eastern Europe’s revolutionaries did in 1989-90. Indeed, the end of autocratic rule in the Arab world is something to celebrate. Libyans, Egyptians, Yemenis, and Syrians, like all people, deserve to be free. It’s just that what ultimately replaces the autocrats may not be worth celebrating. As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has observed, revolutions can be “hijacked by new autocrats.”
So the world anxiously watches the unfolding revolution. The realists caution that Islamist groups could win at the ballot box, that ongoing chaos could roil the region and weaken the global economy, that emergency councils and military strongmen could re-emerge as kingmakers, and that jihadists could seize power in a strategically vital country.
These are real possibilities. Yet there is a sense, finally, that freedom has a fighting chance in the Middle East. It will take years – not just one election – for freedom to take hold. And it will take more than just elections for the rule of law to take hold. Moreover, it will take time for the children of the Arab Spring to learn the ways of political pluralism, to understand the importance of majority rule with minority rights, and to recognize that freedom is about more than going to the polls every few years. As Bouazizi understood, it’s also about property rights and economic liberty and human dignity.
Whatever finally takes hold after these anti-autocracy revolutions, it will be traced back to Mohammed Bouazizi.