When Muhammad Bouazizi set himself on fire, he wasn’t looking to inspire a revolution. He was twenty-six, had never graduated from high school and barely eked out a living by selling fruits and vegetables in his local market. Like most of his generation, he craved social mobility – A chance to move up the ladder and attain a better life. Like most of his generation, his efforts were sabotaged by a flatline economy, government indifference and widespread corruption.
Muhammad’s struggle came to a head when police officers swooped down on him, demanding hefty bribes. Since he couldn’t pay, they seized his wheelbarrow and produce. Distraught from the cruelty of his plight, he took a can of gasoline, doused himself in front of the local governor’s office, struck a match and allowed himself to burn.
In a region known for submission rather than reaction, Muhammad Bouazizi’s actions struck an emotional chord. He became a shahid – A martyr for the cause of social justice. The consequences of his tragedy triggered a sudden upsurge of people power across the Arab Society. The citizens challenged their governments, undeterred by snipers and tanks, demanding change. As a result, the institutions of power suffered a seismic shock. Eventually, a domino effect unfolded with astonishing speed: first in Tunisia, then Egypt, then Libya, and then elsewhere. Change did happen.
It was a watershed event, but one group found itself left out in the cold: Al Qaeda. For years, its leader, Osama bin Laden, had cultivated a singular narrative for disaffected Middle Easterners, ‘If you strike at America, the far enemy, you will stand a better chance of destroying the near enemy, the corrupt governments that have oppressed you. You must take up jihad, and I will show you how.’
For the past decade the situation had revolved around Bin Laden’s narrative. As a result, Washington’s long-time support for repressive Arab regimes and tin-pot dictators had evolved into a more aggressive stance under the Bush administration, with 9/11 spawning twin wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While America’s image floundered in the quagmire, Bin Laden’s reputation blossomed. He had brilliantly baited a superpower, eluded being captured and orchestrated a poisonous environment necessary for terrorism and insurgency.
However, Bin Laden had overlooked the situation in the Arab world. Muhammad Bouazizi’s death had sparked a surge for people power, Arab society had embraced this and the Obama administration had supported this movement. Indeed, inclusive democracy, which secures an equal distribution of political power among all citizens, is preferable to exclusive jihad.
Bin Laden, for all of his strategic brilliance, had well and truly miscalculated the desires and aspirations of the Arab world, and it cost him his life as he found himself pushed further out into the fringe.
John Ling is a Malaysian writer based in New Zealand. You can find out more about him at www.johnling.net