Who coined “Arab Spring”? A media perpsective on Tunisia’s Revolution ten years later

Face to Face: Ben Ali visiting Bouazizi in the hospital

Face to Face: Ben Ali visiting Bouazizi in the hospital

By Habib Toumi
Ten years ago, a Tunisian street vendor set himself ablaze.

Mohammed Bouazizi was one of many young men in the town of Sidi Bouzid in central Tunisia and elsewhere trying to make ends meet by doing odd jobs.

He did not finish high school successfully and without the much-coveted diploma, his chances for securing a steady job requiring academic qualifications were limited. He resorted to use a cart to sell fruit and vegetables.

The local municipality required him to have a license to sell fruit and vegetables, which he reportedly did not possess.

On December 17, 2010, he was selling vegetables off his cart when municipality agents approached him and asked to see his license. As he failed to produce it, one of the agents, Fedia Hamdi, gave him a TD 10 ($6.86) fine. An argument ensued and narratives here differed widely, depending on who is reporting what happened.

One narrative claimed that Fadia who asked for the license was so infuriated with his explanation for his non-compliance with the law that she slapped him, confiscated his weighing scale and overturned his fruit and vegetables cart.

Monji Arabi, a fruit vendor who worked alongside Bouazizi and claimed to be present at the time said later that “he was never slapped.”

In another narrative, as Bouazizi and the agent could reach a compromise, he became so upset that he moved away from the cart and went to argue his case with the local authorities.

The narratives here agree that when the vendor reached the offices of the governor, he was denied the permission to meet with any official. With no possible solution to his dilemma and with bleak images of his future in front of his eyes, he decided in a fit of anger compounded by mounting desperation to set himself on fire.

“He became hysterical and in a highly deplorable act of hopelessness, went to the nearest petrol station, bought some gasoline, poured it on his body and set himself ablaze,” his sister Samia said.

“People panicked when they saw the human torch and one of them splashed water on her brother, an act that worsened his condition. There was no fire extinguisher around. People waited until the ambulance came to take him to hospital. It was horrible. His whole body, from head to toe, was burned by the fire.”

Bouazizi, known locally as Basboosa, was transferred to a bigger hospital in Sfax, Tunisia’s second largest city, 120 kilometres to the east, and afterwards to a specialised burns hospital in Tunis, the capital, 270 kilometres to the north.

Hours after Bouazizi set himself on fire, members of his family gathered in from of the governor’s office where they voiced grievance and called for addressing his case.

Local politicians and activists worked on drawing attention to the tragedy and a cousin later said he communicated with Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab channel, to provide it with footage of the protests that occurred in Sidi Bouzid and soon in neighboring towns against the regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who had been ruling the North African country since November 1987.

The protests in Sidi Bouzid and soon in other towns were fueled by social media in Tunisia and television channels abroad.

The various versions of what happened and how it happened combined with claims about Bouazizi’s status and character flooded accounts on Facebook, the favorite platform among Tunisians and TV screens.

“My brother is 26 years old and did not succeed in getting the high school diploma, so he took up selling fruits and vegetables in order to make some money for himself and the family,” Samia said.

A friend, Naafil Harshani, was quoted as saying that “what mattered to Mohamed was putting food on the table and the game of football. He had nothing to do with politics and wanted nothing to do with politics.”

However, soon reports emerged that Bouazizi was a university graduate who remained jobless for years despite his academic qualifications. The claim was seemingly attributed to an effort to win the sympathy and to garner the support of the thousands of jobless in Tunisia who could not settle into a job. A picture of a man burning to death that was circulated on Facebook and elsewhere as that of Bouazizi was later discovered to be that of an act of self-immolation in an Asian country. There was no picture or video of Bouazizi after he set himself ablaze. In fact, there was only one picture of him reportedly at a wedding that was used initially by a local daily Al Sabah after their reporter saw it in the family home.

Another claim was that Bouazizi wrote a letter to his mother asking for her forgiveness before he set himself on fire. The allegation was later dismissed as being untrue and that it was an attempt to win the sympathy of mothers in the mobilization of efforts to swell protests across the country and ask for greater social justice, jobs for the unemployed, lands for farmers and better future for the people.

As the regime sent in the police to quell the protests, more violent confrontations happened. Footage of the clashes were disseminated through Facebook and emailed to Al Jazeera and other channels abroad to internationalize the issue and put pressure on the regime.

Many of the young protestors in the first days were relatives who felt they should bond together as a clan to make sure the protests would not wane with time.

Attempts to use negotiations to end the protests that were spreading to more towns failed, mainly because the younger generation refused the compromises reached by state officials with political and labor activists.

The situation was compounded when another young man on December 23 committed suicide. More protests were held and it seemed there was no way out of the confrontations between the state and the angry people.

The protests eventually spread to reach Tunis and force Ben Ali to leave the country on January 14. Tunisia then entered a new era. The Western media called it the Arab Spring. Tunisians and most Arabs do not agree.

Who coined “Arab Spring”?

In March 2011, the term ‘Arab Spring’ became the word used in the media to refer to the events that unfolded in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Libya.

The Oxford English Dictionary has a long historical etymology for the use of Spring. It lists the ‘Polish Spring’ of both 1956 and 1982, the ‘Seoul Spring’ of 1979 in Korea, and the ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968.

In 2005, the term “Arab Spring” was used by U.S. commentators to refer to a short-lived flowering of Middle Eastern democracy movement when protests in Beirut captured popular attention.

According to reports, on January 6, 2011, eight days before Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia, Marc Lynch from Foreign Policy wrote an article on ‘Obama’s Arab Spring’.

The British daily The Times on February 19, 2011, wrote that “the Arab Spring, the great awakening, 2011’s equivalent of the fall of communism in 1989, is spreading across North Africa and the Middle East like water pouring from a broken dam.”

Tunisians were bewildered by the term because their movement against the regime both started and culminated in deep winter. They also refused other references to the movement, including the Jasmin Revolution. The Mediterranean country is well known for its fragrant jasmine, often associated with romance, serenity and adventure.

However, many Arab intellectuals are not comfortable with the expression “Arab Spring.”

Several intellectuals in Tunisia say that Western media was looking for symbols that are not grounded in reality.

“Maybe the term ‘Arab Spring’ sounds newsy and evokes potent symbols and special images, but for us it is well detached from reality and does not mean anything. It even borders on the ridicule,” Hammadi Ammar said. “Besides, the Prague Spring, despite its good intentions, did not last long and was quickly suppressed. So, there is no optimism in the reference.”

On August 17, 2011, Rami Khouri, a Lebanese columnist writing in the Daily Star said that he found the term “totally inappropriate.”

“The term is not used at all by those brave men and women who have been on the streets demonstrating,” he wrote.

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