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Crowds mark one year since fruit seller's protest sparked Arab Spring

Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid 12 months ago, igniting protests that spread across the Middle East.

A woman holds a Tunisian flag as she celebrates the first anniversary of the revolution in Sidi Bouzid
A woman holds a Tunisian flag as she celebrates the first anniversary of the revolution in Sidi Bouzid
Image: Hassene Dridi/AP/Press Association Images

EXACTLY ONE YEAR ago, in a hardscrabble town in Tunisia’s arid interior, the death knell sounded for the decades-old system of dictatorships across the Arab world.

With a desperate act of self-immolation, a 26-year-old Sidi Bouzid fruit-seller unwittingly unleashed a year of turmoil that toppled at least three autocrats in a region once thought to be immune to democracy.

Tunisia’s new leaders together with thousands of others took part in a festival starting Saturday in the town honouring the vendor, the revolution, and the protesters whose anger snowballed into a nationwide and then region-wide phenomenon.

One year ago, Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of the Sidi Bouzid town hall after he was publicly slapped and humiliated by a policewoman reprimanding him for selling his vegetables without a license. He suffered full-body burns, and died soon afterward.

Until then, he had spent his days pushing a cart to sell his vegetables, but when his wares were confiscated and his pleas for restitution ignored by town officials, something snapped and a young man who had never left Tunisia transformed the Middle East.

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His act struck a chord in the impoverished interior of the country, where unemployment is still estimated at 28 percent.

The demonstrations began in Sidi Bouzid but soon spread to the nearby city of Kasserine and surrounding small towns.

At first it was just local unrest, until clandestinely shot videos started popping up on Facebook and other social networking sites, inspiring youths across the country.

The focus of the protests soon moved to the capital Tunis as tens of thousands braved tear gas and battled police along the elegant, tree-lined boulevards. An estimated 265 Tunisians died in that month of protests that slowly drew the world’s attention.

And then on January 14 it was over. After Ben Ali’s army refused to shoot protesters and his security forces wavered, he fled to Saudi Arabia with his family .

Eleven days later tens of thousands occupied Cairo’s Tahrir Square and began chanting the same slogan heard in Tunisia: “The people want the fall of the regime.”

Not even three weeks later, Egypt’s army too turned on its commander in chief and 82-year-old Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt for almost three decades as the quintessential symbol of Middle East status quo, suddenly resigned.

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Four days later, protesters hit the streets in Libya’s second largest city of Benghazi, while Yemen began experiencing demonstrations of its own.

Morocco also sprouted a pro-democracy movement that forced the king to scrabble to make reforms, and eventually even Syria – a nation famous for its repression – was awash with protests.

Now the focus has returned to this small town surrounded by olive orchards and tall cactus groves, as thousands marched through the streets, watched fireworks and applauded the unveiling of a marble memorial of a vegetable seller’s cart surrounded by empty chairs symbolizing the fallen dictators.

Where once there had been little sign of Bouazizi’s sacrifice, the town’s main street has been renamed for him.

If the new government succeeds, even as the other countries in the region struggle with the complicated aftermaths of their own pro-democracy movements, Tunisia could for a second time inspire the Arab world.

More: Arab Spring takes toll on tour operator Thomas Cook>

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