‘Mohammed suffered a lot. he worked hard. But when he set fire to himself, it wasn’t about his scales being confiscated. It was about his dignity.’
—Mannoubia Bouazizi, Tunisia
And then came the End of History, summed up by Francis Fukuyama’s influential 1989 essay declaring that mankind had arrived at the «end point of … ideological evolution» in globally triumphant «Western liberalism.» The two decades beginning in 1991 witnessed the greatest rise in living standards that the world has ever known. Credit was easy, complacency and apathy were rife, and street protests looked like pointless emotional sideshows — obsolete, quaint, the equivalent of cavalry to mid-20th-century war. The rare large demonstrations in the rich world seemed ineffectual and irrelevant. (See the Battle of Seattle, 1999.)
There were a few exceptions, like the protests that, along with sanctions, helped end apartheid in South Africa in 1994. But for young people, radical critiques and protests against the system were mostly confined to pop-culture fantasy: «Fight the Power» was a song on a platinum-selling album, Rage Against the Machine was a platinum-selling band, and the beloved brave rebels fighting the all-encompassing global oppressors were just a bunch of characters in The Matrix. (See pictures of protesters around the world.)
«Massive and effective street protest» was a global oxymoron until — suddenly, shockingly — starting exactly a year ago, it became the defining trope of our times. And the protester once again became a maker of history.
Prelude to the Revolutions
It began in Tunisia, where the dictator’s power grabbing and high living crossed a line of shamelessness, and a commonplace bit of government callousness against an ordinary citizen — a 26-year-old street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi — became the final straw. Bouazizi lived in the charmless Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, 125 miles south of Tunis. On a Friday morning almost exactly a year ago, he set out for work, selling produce from a cart. Police had hassled Bouazizi routinely for years, his family says, fining him, making him jump through bureaucratic hoops. On Dec. 17, 2010, a cop started giving him grief yet again. She confiscated his scale and allegedly slapped him. He walked straight to the provincial-capital building to complain and got no response. At the gate, he drenched himself in paint thinner and lit a match. (See pictures of Sidi Bouzid.)
«My son set himself on fire for dignity,» Mannoubia Bouazizi told me when I visited her.
«In Tunisia,» added her 16-year-old daughter Basma, «dignity is more important than bread.»
In Egypt the incitements were a preposterously fraudulent 2010 national election and, as in Tunisia, a not uncommon act of unforgivable brutality by security agents. In the U.S., three acute and overlapping money crises — tanked economy, systemic financial recklessness, gigantic public debt — along with ongoing revelations of double dealing by banks, new state laws making certain public-employee-union demands illegal and the refusal of Congress to consider even slightly higher taxes on the very highest incomes mobilized Occupy Wall Street and its millions of supporters. In Russia it was the realization that another six (or 12) years of Vladimir Putin might not lead to greater prosperity and democratic normality.
In Sidi Bouzid and Tunis, in Alexandria and Cairo; in Arab cities and towns across the 6,000 miles from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean; in Madrid and Athens and London and Tel Aviv; in Mexico and India and Chile, where citizens mobilized against crime and corruption; in New York and Moscow and dozens of other U.S. and Russian cities, the loathing and anger at governments and their cronies became uncontainable and fed on itself.
The stakes are very different in different places. In North America and most of Europe, there are no dictators, and dissidents don’t get tortured. Any day that Tunisians, Egyptians or Syrians occupy streets and squares, they know that some of them might be beaten or shot, not just pepper-sprayed or flex-cuffed. The protesters in the Middle East and North Africa are literally dying to get political systems that roughly resemble the ones that seem intolerably undemocratic to protesters in Madrid, Athens, London and New York City. «I think other parts of the world,» says Frank Castro, 53, a Teamster who drives a cement mixer for a living and helped occupy Oakland, Calif., «have more balls than we do.»
In Egypt and Tunisia, I talked with revolutionaries who were M.B.A.s, physicians and filmmakers as well as the young daughters of a provincial olive picker and a supergeeky 29-year-old Muslim Brotherhood member carrying a Tigger notebook. The Occupy movement in the U.S. was set in motion by a couple of magazine editors — a 69-year-old Canadian, a 29-year-old African American — and a 50-year-old anthropologist, but airline pilots and grandmas and shop clerks and dishwashers have been part of the throngs.