Mohammed Bouazizi was 26 years old with the equivalent of a high school degree. All day, he pushed his vegetable cart in the streets of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia to support his family. In mid-December, his unlicensed cart was confiscated by a policewoman who fined him a day’s wages before slapping and spitting on him.
Bouazizi went to police headquarters to get satisfaction from the authorities, but none would come. In an act of ultimate protest, Mohammed Bouazizi set fire to himself. The young street vendor died 18 days later, but the flames that consumed his body have ignited a regional, and possibly global, fire for democracy.
The courage of Mohammed Bouazizi swept through the Tunisian population resulting in nation-wide protests; protests that eventually ousted President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years of democracy-suffocating rule. Less than a month later, Egyptian citizens took to the streets of Cairo and Alexandria, likewise enraged by unemployment and stifled opportunities by a repressive regime. Soon, Hosni Mubarek was forced to step away from his 30 year presidency.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, populations protested similarly iron-fisted governments and demanded more democratic rule. Oman, Kuwait, Jordan, Iran and even Saudi Arabia experienced citizen uprisings and in Libya, nutcase Moammar Gadhafi was forced to flee Tripoli.
These same demands flared even in China as protesters launched “the Jasmine Revolution.” The Chinese authorities appear to have quelled that effort, but the passions continue to seethe and boil beneath the government’s carefully sculpted public veneer.
Does this mean that a western-style democracy is in the cards for these countries? No, but it appears that people around the world are no longer laying down to repressive regimes. And they challenge their governments because they see what the United States and other free societies have to offer and they find no reason why they, too, can’t enjoy those freedoms.
Did the American Tea Party “uprising” of 2010 influence Mohammed Bouazizi? Was the “take back our country” mantra of conservative small-government proponents a catalyst for the Egyptian revolt? Some would certainly like to think so – and others, not so much – but we likely won’t ever know.
But this, to me, seems certain; as the greatest beacon of freedom in the world, it is necessary for the United States to be the example of democracy. And, if our own government won’t assume that role, as many believe to be the case with the Obama administration, then the citizens must do so. We owe it not just to ourselves, but to every human on the planet.
We owe it to Mohammed Bouazizi.