Homeland security in the United States emerged from a dramatic encounter with a perverse sort of martyrdom. Bin Laden’s minions sacrificed themselves to murder innocents. The murders have continued.
We have struggled to stop the isolated carriers of this contagion. We have been stymied in our efforts to staunch or even to accurately know their ultimate source. But the last ten weeks have offered important clues to what an effective counter-terrorism strategy will include.
When most other so-called martyrs are long forgotten, the name and story of Mohamed Bouazizi will be remembered. In another era Bouazizi would be the protagonist of poetry, song, and myth. This may yet be his destiny.
According to Eileen Byrne writing in the Financial Times:
Mohamed’s story is a dramatic example of the abusive behaviour of the Ben Ali regime and the rage it nurtured in Tunisians.
Since the age of 10 he had gone out after school to sell fruit and vegetables. His father had died when he was three, and his mother, Mannoubia, with her two small boys, married again. Her second husband was also a Bouazizi – it is a big family in the Lsouda area about 12 miles outside Sidi Bouzid.
According to Leila, a sister from the second marriage, Mohammed would pick up fruit and vegetables from the wholesale market each evening to sell on his cart the next day. He wanted to save to buy a delivery van, as the £50 or so he brought in each week was the household’s main income.
But the town-hall inspectors made his life a misery, according to his family. They would ask street sellers whether they had a trading licence, knowing that no such licence exists. When, on December 17, they confiscated his goods it was not the first time they had done so. According to his mother, at home Mohamed “was never angry. He never shouted as he was someone who had confidence in himself”.
Yet when the inspectors started to seize his merchandise a tussle began, his sister said bystanders had told the family. A female inspector slapped him, and another kicked him to the ground, witnesses told the family. Enraged, he went to the town hall to demand to speak to a local official, but was told: “There’s nothing you can do about it.” It was an official mind-set familiar to the inhabitants of Mr Ben Ali’s Tunisia.
So Mohamed bought some petrol and went to the office of the regional governor. He doused himself in the petrol, and demanded to see an official.
Friends have explained to the family that the trigger on his cigarette lighter jammed on the open position as he stood there. He had not intended to kill himself, his relatives reassure themselves. But the news of his self-immolation soon reached the neighbourhood, where many Bouazizi cousins live.
The Bouazizis descended on the prefecture. They can be seen, massed outside the closed railings, on a video uploaded to YouTube by a bystander with a mobile phone. They demanded to see the governor, and shouted that Mohamed Bouazizi could not be treated as a nobody.
Many Tunisians seem to have agreed with them, that enough was enough. “We have our pride,” Leila concluded quietly on Sunday. “As a family, we work and we don’t like people interfering with our family affairs. We like justice, and dignity.” (Read another profile of Bouazizi from Al Jazerra.)
Bouazizi died of his burns on January 4. On January 14 the long-time Tunisian dictator fled. On January 17 a young Egyptian, Ahmed Hashem Al Sayed, followed Bouazizi’s example. He died the next day. On February 11 Hosni Mubarak of Egypt resigned. Weather has its butterfly effect. We have now seen a social and political Bouazizi effect.
The purpose of the 9/11 attacks on the United States and others since has been, at least in part, to model and motivate the overthrow of Ben Ali, Mubarak, the Saudi royal family, and their ilk across the Arab world and beyond. In late 2001 Ayman al Zawahiri, the Egyptian partner of bin Laden, explained al-Qaeda’s goal as, “The mobilization (tajyyish) of the nation, its participation in the struggle, and caution against the struggle of the elite with the authority. The jihad movement must come closer to the masses, defend their honor, fend off injustice, and lead them to the path of guidance and victory…”
Despite this there is no evidence that al Qaeda — or its allies or its example or its goals — had any significant role in the recent and ongoing upheavals. (Which is not to discount al-Qaeda seeking advantage in their wake.)
What might Bouazizi’s influence — and al-Qaeda’s comparative lack of influence — tell us about the role and strategy of homeland security?
Bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, Awlaki et al are self-serving egoists. Tunisians, Egyptians, and Libyans are well-acquainted with the type. Ben Ali was ever so. Mubarak gradually became little more. Gaddafi is but an especially vivid variation in form.
Religious, secular or crazy the terrorists and dictators are each their own hero, their own god. They want us to join them in hero-worship. You know the type, don’t you? From time-to-time most of us encounter it in ourselves.
But Bouazizi is even more familiar. We hope. We work. We dream. We plan. We do what we can. Ambition falters. Frustration unfolds. Pettiness — our own as well as others — pesters our days. Without great care, our very own sense of self can be stolen.
While bin Laden, Ben Ali, and others are self-serving, Bouazizi was self-sacrificing. His was a paradoxical act. Self-sacrifice requires authentic vulnerability and submission, yet projects power and courage. In Bouazizi’s self-sacrifice millions have recognized their own despair and their own claim on justice.
Where this will end up is far beyond any one’s ability to know. But in this narrative our counter-terrorist mission can certainly better understand its challenge and its opportunity.