Who was the single most important individual of the 2010’s?

It’s a big enough question by itself. And perhaps fittingly, in a decade which will be noted by historians as one in which conventional sources of power were questioned, it wasn’t any of the usual suspects.

It certainly wasn’t Barack Obama. The American President, hampered by ideological gridlock at home and timidity on the world stage, failed to live up to the euphoric promise of 2008. Neither was it any other powerful western politician. Merkel, Cameron, Hollande, Macron and May have each taken turns in their respective hot seats only to be caught up the tumultuous political changes in their own countries. Nor was it any notable public intellectual or businessman. The likes of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg have attracted just as much ire as praise for their conduct over the last 10 years.  

The man who should go down as having done most to change the world in the 2010’s was a modest fruit vendor, who sold his wares on the streets of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia.  

The story of Mohamed Bouazizi was turning out to be a fairly common one in the post-crash Arab world. The only one in his family earning an income, Bouazizi was helping to support not just his mother, uncle and brother but also younger siblings trying to make it through university or find jobs of their own.

A family of eight, dependant on an apple cart.

Mohamed had been repeatedly reprimanded by the police for street vending. On the 17th December 2010, his cart and produce had once again been confiscated. In an act of subsequent desperation and despair, he stood outside the police station, and lit himself on fire.  

The intense anger and frustration felt by many Tunisians towards the incident soon spread far beyond Sidi Bouzid. Within a week, almost the entire country was up in arms. Not just against political repression and police brutality, but attacking the legitimacy of the government itself. By the 28th December the unrest had become so threatening that Zine Ben Ali, the Tunisian president for over 20 years, went to visit Bouazizi in hospital. Within a week, Mohamed was dead. Within a month, Ben Ali had fled the country.

The string of copycat incidents across North Africa following Bouazizi’s death showed that Mohamed’s story was hardly a one-off. A flurry struggling arab millennials were soon making it clear to the governments of the Maghreb just how out of touch they had become. For decades, the nations of the middle east had largely been ruled by “strongmen” like Colonel Gaddafi, Hafez al-Assad, and Saddam Hussein. Many of these dictators had come to power in bloody Cold War coups. As these nations began to open up to the global economy during the 90’s and 00’s, their societies began to change. But the modus operandi of the state; the repression, the corruption, the mafioso networks of patronage and favouritism, didn’t.

In 2010, the traditional political classes in the Middle East were still taking advantage of the economic growth and extra wealth the market was generating despite the professional class growing itself. This particularly toxic brand of crony capitalism, which allowed elites to live lavishly in Damascus and Cairo whilst university graduates and engineers were forced to scrape a living working street stalls and driving taxis, had reached breaking point. In the last days of Mubarak’s Egypt, the President’s politically connected allies were still making an obscene 60% of all private sector profits, despite only supplying 11% of the employment.

This was not a new phenomenon by any measure. Many of the “bourgeois revolutions” of 18th and 19th century Europe were driven by middle-class idealists’ desire to topple aloof kleptocracies. However, in the Arab World, which has had no real history of secular democratic government, it managed to release darker political impulses than an optimistic desire for liberal reform.

The reformists had the initial upper hand in the Arab spring. In Egypt, the next domino to fall after Tunisia, the revolution was characterised by youthful energy and hopes of modernisation. Anti-Mubarak activists used new platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to organise the protests which erupted in Tahrir Square. In Syria, Bahrain, Oman and Yemen too, protests were initially peaceful, moderate, and eagerly cheered on in the west.

But like many revolutions, the Arab Spring soon found itself hijacked by its more extreme elements. For the Libyan rebels, this disaster struck all too early. The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, The February 17th Brigade and Al-Qaeda ensured that there would be no putting Libya back together again once Gaddafi had been ousted. And whilst the celebrations in Tahrir Square in 2011 may have been the most visible crowning moment for the reformers, the years of power struggles between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Army ensured that the man who eventually became the Egyptian President, Abdel el-Sisi, was an authoritarian strongman little better than Mubarak.  

But the true emblematic failure of the Arab Spring would come in Syria.

It’s hard to tell whether President Assad could have tried to pre-empt the conflict that has reduced Syria to a husk. The mild-mannered eye doctor, who only took up the family business of running the country because of his brother’s tragic death in a car accident, had originally hoped to modernise the police state he inherited from his father. The arab spring, tragically, forced him back into the role of the traditional middle eastern strongman. Assad’s regime released chemical weapons on their own people, flattened Syria’s largest cities, and instigated the largest refugee crisis in decades, which played its own part in radicalising european politics too.

Attempting to undercut support for the opposition by releasing terrorists from prison, Assad also served to create another calamity; Isis, whose short-lived reign of terror in the Levant created perhaps the 21st Century’s worst humanitarian disaster.

Isis attracted fierce condemnation from just about everyone. But the wider power vacuum that had seemed impossible at the time of Bouazizi’s death proved fertile ground for proxy conflicts between both regional and global powers. By 2015, what started as a fairly uniform contest of Regime vs. Rebel had become a testing ground for older and emerging rivalries: Sunni vs Shia, Saudi Arabia vs Iran, Turkey vs Kurdistan, Baathist vs. Islamist, Russia vs the United States.

In the end, the Arab Spring’s descent into Arab Winter proved entirely predictable. The democratic sea-change the activists of 2011 had reached for has proven entirely inadequate in 2019. In part, because the powers that be in the Middle East have not given up on repression as a political norm, bit more fundamentally because the region is not yet ready for the meaningful social changes that would be needed to support a liberal democracy.

However it would be wrong to short-change what the movement has achieved. Bouazizi and his successors have changed the region forever, but they will have to be patient. The traditional strongmen who once dominated their countries  will no longer be able to sit comfortably in their ivory towers. Tunisia has changed permanently for the better and in the end many other regimes will begin to realise that a growing, educated middle class will have to be appeased with meaningful political change, lest they suffer the same fate as Gaddafi.

It can be tempting to think of the Arab Spring revolutions and other geopolitical movements as working like a line of dominos, where one regime change leads to another until an entire political system has fallen. In reality, it’s more like a tide moving in on a line of sandcastles on the beach. Some of those regimes crumble, others don’t, but everyone has to adapt.

Mohamed Bouazizi may be long gone, but the changes he brought to the world in the 2010’s, are not, they are still picking up pace.

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