The funny thing about history is that it is rarely seen as what is
Rather, it is usually seen as what has happened.
26-year-old Muhammad Bouazizi arrived at the municipal government’s gates in
Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia on December 17, 2010, and set himself ablaze in a desperate
act of defiance, he did not know he would be making history. When the men, women
and children of his country took the streets in mass protest following his
death, they, too, did not know they would be making history. But in October
2011, when I arrived in the capital city Tunis as a television reporter covering
the country’s first free vote, I knew I had stepped into history-in-the- making.
Present tense, not past.
On the morning of the ballot, eager Tunisians
awoke early, only to spend much of the day in long queues at polling
stations. They were unwavering. I spoke with several of them, as they
emerged from ballot boxes proudly displaying their inkedstained index fingers.
Most were ecstatic, even if uncertain what they were doing.
was confusing. Tunisians were casting their votes for one of many parties
contesting an election that would see a national constituent assembly created,
one tasked with rewriting the country’s outdated military- era constitution, and
one (they now hope) that will ultimately pave the way for a future
On the day of the vote, one particularly great anecdote
emerged when Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of the formerly banned Islamist Ennahda
Party, went to one polling station. Leading in the polls and surrounded by his
entourage, he headed straight to the front of the queue, only to encounter an
offended crowd. Those lined up yelled out at him to wait his turn. One pointed
to the end of the queue and reportedly told Ghannouchi, “democracy starts back
there.” This was to be a perfect day, and nothing – and no one – would ruin it
PERFECT OR not, there was clearly something magical in the air
that day, an anything- is-possible optimism, a recognition that the whole was
bigger than the individual. For what had “sprung” here one year earlier
was still “springing” across the region and, most notably, next door in Libya.
Just days earlier, Muammar Gaddafi had been captured and killed. The
juxtaposition between the two journeys – Libya and Tunisia – was evident, and
one most Tunisians noted with pride.
It was highlighted to be me by
Moncef Marzouki, the human rights activist and leader of the Congress Party, as
we walked down a leafy Tunis street while his volunteers distributed campaign
stickers to lastminute swing voters. Marzouki spoke of a unique potential
embodied in Tunisia and in Tunisians. His Congress Party went on to secure the
second biggest victory in the election, only to then join Ghannouchi’s Islamists
in a coalition.
Ah, how history redeems itself. It was, after all,
Marzouki’s 1991 public criticism of then-president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s
heavy-handed – and, according to Marzouki, illegal – crackdown on Ennahda that
landed him in the hot seat. Ironic that 20 years after defending the group’s
right to be, Marzouki found himself a legitimate contender in real elections,
and then joining them in governance. Not for his own sake, but for the sake of
Tunisia. Such was the optimism of that day. It was palpable.
I decided to
visit Sidi Bouzid and the spot of Bouaziz’s self-immolation. The adjacent square
has been renamed to honor him. As has a square in the capital. As has a square
in Paris, just across the sea. Concrete slabs on both sides of the Mediterranean
now serve as a testament to the impact one man had on multiple
Coming to the square that day, I repeatedly thought of the
word “tsunami.” It is hard to claim that the dramatic effects of Bouazizi’s act
could have been predicted. But his death – or that of someone just like him –
could have been.
Pressures from the economic crisis that begin in the US
with the housing market and banking collapse, which dominoed across the Atlantic
Ocean to Europe, strained the economies there. The areas particularly hurt where
those where millions of North African migrants worked and sent remittances back
home. As work slowed, so, too, did the funds.
Many returned home that
season with little to no money at all, welcomed back by families depending on
them. The shame was too much. So essentially, Americans defaulted on
sub-prime mortgages that many should have never received in the first place, and
a few years later, the ripples were being felt across the ocean. Tsunami.
The disaster that follows the earthquake. The burden of
But there is always the clean-up effort. The mass
protests, the civil unrest, the ousting of Ben Ali, the inspired movements
elsewhere, the vote in Tunisia – that has been the rebuilding. And as is often
the case, when an old decrepit building finally collapses, it is replaced with
something much better, grander and stronger.
Bouazizi was the catalyst
that reminded the people of Tunisia that they have a voice. They have
spoken, and they are speaking. And while we might not always like what
they are saying – or what the Egyptians will say, or what the Syrians will say,
or what the Libyans will say – we should at least start by listening. For the
fire that started it all in front of those gates still burns inside these
people. And they are not quite done writing their history.The writer is
an Israeli-American television journalist who has reported from all over the
world, including Tunisia, Turkey, Afghanistan, Qatar and Bahrain.