SIDI BOU SAID, Tunisia – Mohamed Bouazizi's mother, Manoubia, has left her cramped home, with its faint smell of sewage, in the central Tunisian farm town of Sidi Bouzid -- the town that gave birth to the Arab Spring. She has moved to an apartment provided for her near the Tunisian capital, a more convenient location for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and other visiting world dignitaries wishing to pay their respects.
Feyda Hamdi, the Sidi Bouzid policewoman whom townspeople say relentlessly hit up Manoubia's son for petty bribes from his fruit business, confiscated his wares, and even slapped the 26-year-old when he couldn't or wouldn't pay, remains in Sidi Bouzid. Long out of prison for her run-in with Mohamed on a frosty morning last December, Hamdi is off the police force, having claimed that the stress of her time behind bars disabled her.
The ex-policewoman is spotted alone from time to time in Sidi Bouzid now, a controversial figure, shunned by many in the flat, brown town.
So say two other residents of Bouazizi's hometown, Sofiene Dhouibi and Hamza ben Abdallah, two polite and thoughtful university graduates, both now 25, whom I first encountered in Sidi Bouzid in January. When I met Sofiene and Hamza, the protests sparked by the Dec. 17 confrontation between the overweening small-town policewoman and the hard-working and overwrought young fruit vendor had just toppled Tunisia's president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
Sofiene, then two years out of college and still unemployed, quietly seething with anger about his predicament, was showing up in late January for what were still daily protests. He had taken part from the first minute of the demonstrations, which began in Sidi Bouzid the day after Bouazizi, raw from his encounter with the policewoman and despairing of ever earning a living in dignity under the corrupt Ben Ali, set himself on fire in front of a city building. The morning after Bouazizi's act, when it came time to confront the police, Sofiene threw some of the first rocks hurled during the protests that have rocked the Arab world over the subsequent 10 months.
"I can honestly say I was among the first 50" people protesting, Sofiene says now, when I meet the two young Tunisians over dinner to catch up. He's not bragging, but he is watching to make sure I write down the number correctly. "I am proud, because I am one of the 50," he explains.
Hamza, a friend of Sofiene's and an ex-classmate of Mohamed, had just graduated from university the day that he drenched himself in a liter and a half of gasoline and struck a match. But hailing from a better-off family and with better prospects than either Sofiene or Mohamed, Hamza had stayed on the edge of the first protests. His role was to post some of the first Facebook videos, which slowly spread the word about an uprising in a concrete, whitewashed plaza in a tomato-growing town near the edge of the Sahara. By no means stars in the revolutions, Sofiene and Hamza nonetheless were among the pivotal first few dozen of the millions in the Arab world driven to act.