The following appears in The Arabs Are Alive, edited by Ziauddin Sardar and Robin Yassin-Kassab.
On 7 December 2010, Tunisian despot Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s regime blocked internet access to the Beirut daily Al-Akhbar for publishing a US embassy cable which painted the dictator, his wife and her family in a deeply unflattering light. In the July 2009 cable, US ambassador Robert Godec had accused Ben Ali’s regime of having ‘lost touch with the Tunisian people…[tolerating] no advice or criticism whether domestic or international,’ and of increasingly relying ‘on the police for control and focus on preserving power.’ The cable mentioned the growing ‘corruption in the inner circle,’ particularly around first lady Leila Trabelsi and her family, whom it said the Tunisians ‘intensely dislike, even hate.’ It finally concluded that ‘anger is growing at Tunisia’s high unemployment and regional inequities. As a consequence, the risks to the regime’s long-term stability are increasing.’
Ten days later in Sidi Bouzid, 26-year-old street vendor Muhammad Bouazizi immolated himself in front of the local municipality building after his vegetable cart was confiscated by Faida Hamdi, a female municipal official who had then slapped him, spat in his face, and insulted his dead father. Anguished friends and sympathizers soon took to the streets to protest, and Youtube, Facebook and Twitter helped spread the fire further—the long deferred anger of the Tunisians had finally erupted. On 4 January 2011, when Bouazizi succumbed to his wounds, the 5,000 mourners at his funeral were heard chanting, ‘Farewell, Mohammed, we will avenge you. We weep for you today. We will make those who caused your death weep.’ Ten days later, as the protests reached a crescendo, Ben Ali and his wife hoarded their loot and decamped to Saudi Arabia. Some suggested that Wikileaks had drawn first blood.