There is a fantastic article by Lydia Khalil in this month’s Australian Literary Review that goes through a lot of the causes of the Middle East unrest. What I found particularly emotional were the stories of Neda Soltan, Mohamed Bouazizi and Khaled Said – who became symbols of the repression in their respective countries.
These three stories go a long way in describing the actual situations in these countries, in a way that words like “despot”, “repression” and “autocracy” could never sum-up.
For the shabab, the new civic sphere has taken on three seemingly contradictory characteristics: it is at once individualistic, pluralistic and anonymous. This trio is explained in the stories of three young people who personify the struggle of the shabab: Neda Agha Soltan in Iran, Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia and Khaled Said in Egypt.
Soltan was an aspiring musician and a 27-year-old graduate student who worked at her family’s travel agency. One day she happened upon one of the many groups of protesters that had taken to the streets of Tehran that summer of 2009. One minute she was milling about with her friends, shielding her eyes from the sun as she observed from the sidelines the chanting protesters and commotion, the next minute she was slumped to the ground, blood spewing from her face and nose.
A stranger captured her death on a mobile phone and later that day the amateur videographer uploaded the video of Soltan’s murder to YouTube. The scene of her death was played again and again on computer and telephone screens all across Iran and the world. She became an accidental martyr for the Iranian opposition movement.
Soltan had been a sympathiser and observer by any account and was only marginally involved in the opposition. She was not an active dissident, yet she was killed. One face of many, standing along the sidelines, became the icon that defined the opposition. Her murder at the hands of government henchmen highlighted the criminality of the entire Iranian regime.
Bouazizi came from a large Tunisian family of six brothers and sisters. They lived modestly in the backwater of Sidi Bouzid where job opportunities were few.
When he was a young boy, his father died, forcing Bouazizi to sacrifice his already mediocre education in a one-room school to take on a job to support his family. The best work he could come up with was selling fruit at the market, but even then he could not afford an official permit. With his meagre salary as an illicit fruit vendor, he paid for his sisters’ college fees and attempted to save up for a work van.
Bouazizi would set up his stand during the day, trying to avoid the market inspectors who had already nicked him twice that year for not having a proper licence. He couldn’t even afford to bribe an official to let the fine slide. It amounted to three days’ earnings.
As he was setting up one morning to sell his wares, a female inspector came up to fine him for selling without a licence. When he protested, she slapped him, humiliating him in front of the entire market. When he tried to complain to the local authorities, no one would take his meeting.
Desperate and incensed, he doused himself with petrol and set himself on fire in front of the municipal building. He died 18 days later.
Bouazizi’s suicide wasn’t the kind we are used to hearing about from the Middle East. He did not die after strapping on a bomb and killing innocents in the name of jihad. He committed suicide by self-immolation, the ultimate act of sacrificial spectacle. At his funeral, his supporters chanted, “Farewell Mohamed, we will avenge you.”
And they did; weeks later, the Tunisian government was toppled.
At first, it seemed as if Bouazizi’s death was destined to be a desperate act in a desolate town. The first local protesters were friends and family who, like him, were also ignored. Calls for an official investigation into the inspectors’ actions went unheeded. The local media didn’t cover the events.
But the protests grew, despite the lack of official media cover.
Shamseddine Abidi, an interior designer from Tunis who heard what was happening in Sidi Bouzid, started to post videos and update his Facebook page with news of the protests. One of Abidi’s Facebook friends, a journalist from Al Jazeera, picked up the story. For weeks it was exclusively covered by Al Jazeera, spreading the news across the Arab world.
The wave of Arab revolt was sparked in the most obscure, backwater town in the margins of Middle East. It was done by someone with no history of political protest or activism. Bouazizi was a nobody, really, until his tragedy provoked an irresistible movement for change across the Arab world.
On Facebook, an anonymous administrator started a page about one year ago called We are All Khaled Said. The page showed extremely graphic photographs of a battered face. This was Said. It also showed a photograph of a pale young man in a grey hooded sweatshirt. His ears stuck out a bit, but he had a friendly, direct gaze. He seemed unassuming, not at all strident, and completely unrecognisable from the battered face shown alongside. Said was a small shopkeeper in Alexandria, Egypt, with an artistic bent.
The We are All Khaled Said page explained his story as the tragic tale of a young man who was brutally murdered because he refused to be searched by narcotics detectives.
Said was at his usual haunt, an internet cafe in Sidi Gaber, when two cops stormed into the cafe asking people for their IDs. Said refused because he had a small bag of hashish he planned to smoke later and as a consequence was dragged out of the cafe and beaten before being thrown in a police vehicle. The police continued torturing him at the police station, where he died of his wounds. They threw his corpse in the street, claiming he was attacked by strangers. Later they would claim that he choked on the bag of hash he was trying to hide.
The We are All Khaled Said page was not the first group to publicise Egypt’s ubiquitous police brutality but it was the first one that gave a face to the problem. Expressions of outrage were disparate and unconnected before We are All Khaled Said. Said’s story gave a focus and a forum to widespread rage and a desire to right a wrong.
“Each one of us can be Khaled” — this sentiment was expressed over and over by people who heard his story.
Soltan, Bouazizi and Said were unknown, ordinary young people; anonymous members of the masses. Their lives were not marked by anything in particular but their deaths carried a potent symbolism: they came to symbolise the anonymous, persistent struggles of their generation against authoritarianism.