One year ago, on Dec. 17, a humble, cowed fruit-seller in a small, provincial city in Tunisia doused himself in paint thinner and set himself alight. The flames that eventually took his life had an effect he could not have foreseen, even in his wildest dreams: Less than a month later, his country's long-ruling tyrant had fled for his life and a democratic revolution would soon sweep across the Middle East. His death made him famous, an icon whose face adorns postage stamps and whose name -- Mohamed Bouazizi -- now stands for the hopes of a generation.
As is so often the case with political martyrs, Bouazizi means strikingly different things to different people. To some he's a generic symbol of the resistance to injustice; to others an archetype of the fight against autocracy. Occupy Wall Street activists have even enlisted him as a spiritual ally of their struggle against the unholy alliance between Washington and corporate America.
It is hard to imagine that the real Mohamed Bouazizi would have recognized himself in any of these incarnations.
My colleagues at the Institute for Liberty and Democracy (ILD) and I recently spent some three months painstakingly reconstructing Bouazizi's life and world, conducting interviews with his family members and friends as well as exploring his hometown of Sidi Bouzid (population 38,000). The Bouazizi we uncovered is a far more modest and straightforward figure than many of his admirers would presume. He was an apolitical family man, respected by his peers.
Bouazizi wanted two things: to earn a living for his family and to accumulate capital (ras el mel). He was a young man, only 26, of no other discernible interests. His life was consumed by his role as the primary breadwinner for his family of seven -- a role he had played, according to his mother, ever since he started working in the market at age 12. His father died when Bouazizi was 3. He had five siblings. His mother later remarried, but his stepfather, also his uncle, plagued by health problems, was unable to support the family.
As those who knew Bouazizi tell it, he was the very opposite of an activist. "He never even watched the news," his mother told us. "People like Mohamed are concerned with doing business. They don't understand anything about politics." The $73 he earned each week was the family's main source of income.
Above all, he was a repressed entrepreneur -- which is why Bouazizi's death resonated so strongly and became a unifying force across the culturally, politically, and religiously diverse Arab world, from Morocco to Syria. For decades, market economies have been growing in the Middle East and North Africa, albeit in the shadows of the law. The ILD has estimated that 50 percent of the region's entrepreneurs operate outside the law. They share Bouazizi's desire to prosper -- and his despair in the face of the insurmountable obstacles in their way.