Tunisia

Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire outside a municipal building in Sidi Bou Zid on 17th December 2010. A female police officer had accused him of not carrying a stall-trading license to sell vegetables at the market, which he disputed. She returned with two male police offers who wrestled him to the ground, beat him and confiscated his goods. He went to complain to the governor and ask for his scales back; but the governor refused to see him. Bouazizi told the gatekeepers that if the governor wouldn’t see him he would set himself on fire, yet the governor still refused to see him. Bouazizi stood outside the municipal building and struck a match. His body, aflame, was filmed by his cousin who uploaded the image to the internet, Al Jazera picked it up, and broadcast the images.  The video footage sparked the protests in Tunisia. “Karama”, people called: they wanted their honour.

Egypt

Khaled Said was in an internet café on 6th June 2010 in Kleopatra, when police forced him into an alleyway and beat him to death.  His brother found his body in the mortuary and took a photograph of his face – jaw knocked out of joint, and posted these pictures on the internet. Said’s family said that he was tortured to death because he held video material that implicated police in a drug deal.  An internet executive Wael Ghoneim used the picture to create a Facebook page called “We are all Khaled Said”. The page became Egypt’s biggest dissident page on Facebook and many people substituted Khaled’s photograph for their own profile picture. Ghoneim later posted a call for protests in Tahrir Square on this page. 55,000 people signed up to it and about the same number turned up on the square on 25th January. Many people on the square carried banners of the photograph of Khaled Said.  Here began Egypt’s popular protests and occupation of Tahrir square.

Libya

Fathi Terbel, a lawyer in Benghazi appealed for a Day of Anger to take place on 17th February to demand an investigation into an alleged massacre in Abu Salim prison 15 years ago in which hundreds of people were killed. Fathi was arrested and this sparked a demonstration in Benghazi on 15th February outside the police station. Several protestors were shot and this was the start of Libya’s protests and conflict.

United Kingdom

Mark Duggan was shot dead by police on 4th August 2011. One of his cousins had been killed and the police had suspected that he was a gang member and was planning a revenge attack. The police claimed he had open fire as they tried to arrest him, but tests revealed that the stray bullet was police issue. His friends and relatives crowded outside the police station demanding to know what had happened. The police chief didn’t brief them. The local community began to protest and the next day people all across London took to the streets in confrontation with the police, looting shops and setting fire to buildings.  And so began England’s summer riots.

Each of these four moments of protest was triggered by the death, detention or self-harm of one man, under circumstances of police/official corruption, stop-and-search or brutality. Each of these men: beaten, killed or detained came from the social margins – either through poverty, ethnicity or politics.  And so each of them, through their mistreatment by those in official uniforms, became a symbol of injustice in each of these four countries to people who felt similarly disenfranchised. The protests that ensued were each a collective expression of feelings of anger, despair, depravation, envy and alienation from the economic, political or social life of each respective nation.  The occupation of squares, violence, acts of war, and looting which became the distinct manifestations of protest in the different countries can also all be seen as imitations of elements within the mainstream, official, inner workings of their nation which they had been excluded by, or even from.

These shared motivations of all these four movements highlight the hypocrisies of Western leaders’ support of the protests in the Middle East – both in voice, and in arms – in contrast to the response to immediately criminalise and crack down on the protests within the United Kingdom. Here is a universal problem for the individual: lover, friend, parent or politician of the difficulties in attempting to understand human motivations when the actions that they inspire threaten our own place and power. Perhaps this is a problem of a more personal kind of centre and periphery.

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore

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