As Libya descended into chaos last night, and I read my way through the BBC, Reuters and the twitter stream for news, I had to marvel at the tidy sequence of cause and effect that has brought a wide swath of the Arab world under revolt in recent weeks.
It’s human nature to look for the trigger and resulting sequence of events that spark wars or revolutions. The Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princep’s assassination of the Hapsburg Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo and the sequence of events that followed that initiated the first World War (the assassination is recounted by Rebecca West in the Black Lamb and Grey Falcon; the tragedy of diplomacy that led to war by Barbara Tuchman in the Guns of August) is a classic example of a violent trigger unleashing pent up furies. Did the American Revolution begin on the steps of the old statehouse when the British fired on a threatening mob in what is known as the Boston Massacre? Any student of history knows that great conflicts start for many complex reasons — Pearl Harbor didn’t initiate the war between Japan and the United States, the seeds of that conflict were planted in the 19th century and had been sprouting for a decade prior to the morning of December 7th.
But when the history of the winter of 2011 is written, two people are likely to live on in legend as the point in time that started the chain of dominoes falling across North Africa into the Middle East. Mohamed Bouazizi and Faida Hamdy had no foreknowledge on December 17, 2010 when she slapped, and then confiscated the unlicensed Tunisian fruit seller’s scale and sent him spiraling in embarrassment anger and despair to the point that he self-immolated with a can of gasoline.
““She humiliated him,” said his sister, Samia Bouazizi. “Everyone was watching.””
Two months later and two governments have fallen, two others are teetering, and many more are simmering and watching for the right moment to rise up. All because of a slap to the face of a 26 year-old fruit vendor. It just amazes me.