The Tunisian Spark

“A single spark,” Mao Zedong wrote in 1930, “can start a prairie fire.” He was referring to the potential of a peasant uprising somewhere in China to ignite a nationwide revolutionary conflagration.

A spark has been ignited in the Arab world, home to some 360 million people suffering under some of the worst dictatorships that exist today. A 26 year old college student and street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set a match to himself in front of a government building in a town in Tunisia, protesting the government’s policy on licensing street sales. His death immediately made him a hero and martyr and brought down a hated regime.

When I think of self-immolation as political protest, I think of Buddhist monks in Vietnam who could draw upon such scriptures as the Lotus Sutra to validate this form of protest. (In that text a boddhisattva anoints his body with fragrant oil and sets fire to his body, illuminating countless worlds, and the Buddha praises him.) But Tunisia is a Muslim country. Who could have expected this act of protest, and what it’s led to?

Information. Young people are on their laptops, cellphones, I-pods, texting and tweeting as we speak, following the Tunisian events.

Inspiration. From Algeria to Egypt to Yemen, people are saying “We can do that too!” As the Tunisian police force throws its lot in with the protesters, the troops who monitor Cairo’s streets, looking so fierce if hungry, know they can do that too. What is Mubarak to them? The government of Yemen, hated by so many and now so exposed (due to Wikileaks) as complicit in U.S. drone attacks on the country, is in big trouble.

This may be the Arab world’s 1848. Or its 1968. In those years upheavals convulsed the west. Part of it was due to common socio-economic conditions, part of it was due to the power of suggestion: If they can topple their rulers, so can we. It is the real power of hope, not Obama’s bogus version. It is real belief in change that strengthens as people see their streets filled with neighbors defying the security forces and able to get away with it.

There is no guarantee that whatever new governments emerge will be better than those toppled in the next few weeks. “The real fruit” of these battles, as a great man once wrote, “lies not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers.”

Pan-Arabism is a fine thing. (It’s also a central tenet of Baathist ideology, that of Saddam Hussein’s party in Iraq, once supported by the U.S. as an alternative to Islamist or communist parties). The idea that Arabic-speaking peoples are a nation, from the Atlantic coast of West Africa to Iraq, remains strong and insures that events in one Arab nation resonate in others. Nothing excites oppressed people more than the example of a revolution in a kindred country. This is why crowned heads and miscellaneous CIA-installed thugs throughout the Middle East are now quaking in their boots, cracking down or then offering concessions.

There is great disorder under heaven, as the Chinese communists – when they were communists – used to say. The situation is excellent.

Gary Leupp is a Professor of History at Tufts University, and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Gary.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on January 28th, 2011 at 10:03am #

    baathist failed to prevent nato or u.s. invasion of iraq because of key factors: vitiating cults and an inegalitarian structure of society and governance.

    communists failed in their building of an egalitarian, pantisocratic-timocratic governance due two factors-actors: inegalitarians abroad-at home and them being much, too much, military-economo-diplomaticly stronger.
    and extremely vicious; as apaches, koreans, nicaraguans, sioux, vietnamese, iraqis, pal’ns can attest to.
    and stronger to that point that they cld encircle SU with wmd and they cld not retaliate in kind.
    elementary! why does leupp skirt such astounding facts?
    tunisian revolution, i aver, wld end in yet another inegalitarian governance!
    or going from frying pan to fire! tnx

  2. MichaelKenny said on January 28th, 2011 at 10:32am #

    The situation is indeed excellent. But let’s hope it’s not 1848. Those uprisings all failed! Even 1968 didn’t accomplish anything in the short term. The events of that year merely discredited both the US and the communists in the eyes of the youth of the time (my generation). Let’s hope, in fact, that it is 1989, when that discrediting bore its first fruit with the overthrow of the one-party regimes on which, inter alia, the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes are modelled.

  3. mary said on January 28th, 2011 at 12:16pm #

    Biden is in ‘de Nile’. Geddit?

    SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: That was President Obama speaking yesterday. Vice President Joe Biden also yesterday said that President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt for 30 years, since 1981, was not a dictator. He made the comment in an interview on the PBS NewsHour.

    VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Look, Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things that he’s been very responsible on relative to geopolitical interests in the region, Middle East peace efforts, the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with Israel. And I think that it would be—I would not refer to him as a dictator.

    (Democracy Now)

    There have been quite shocking scenes on the TV news channels today showing the brutality of the Egyptian special security police. I think they have had training from the Israelis as they are so adept at firing tear gas canisters into crowds.

    It has been interesting today hearing for the first time the reporters on the BBC and Sky using words like… brutal, repressive, dictator ..when referring to Mubarak. They probably realise that the game is up and that they can no longer put out the crapaganda. Sadly I hear that the army has now been called out but the people say they have lost their fear.

  4. mary said on January 29th, 2011 at 3:06am #

    Helicopter roof time? US and UK next.

    Israeli embassy staff evacuate Egypt
    Sat Jan 29, 2011 8:35AM

    The Israeli embassy on the top floor of a tower block in Cairo
    Israel has pulled its embassy staff out of Egypt as the outpouring of public protest against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s government shows no sign of remission.

    Helicopters evacuated the embassy staff to an Egyptian airbase, where they were flown back to Tel Aviv. The evacuation came after a group of Egyptian demonstrators passed by the embassy building, according to the daily al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper.

    Reports also said the Israeli ambassador has fled Egypt after the discovery by Egyptian security of a Mossad spy network in the capital Cairo.

    On Thursday, an Israeli minister, whose name was withheld, said Egyptian government forces will have to exercise force to rein in public protests as the country teeters on the brink of a Tunisia-style revolution.

    Egypt, which is widely regarded as the first Arab nation to seal a peace agreement with Israel three decades ago, remains one of Tel Aviv’s most important allies.

    Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom told reporters on Thursday that Tel Aviv is closely monitoring the still-unfolding crisis in Egypt, and does not see a threat in its ties with the African state.

    The two sides have cooperated in imposing restrictions on Palestinians living in the impoverished occupied territories.

    Tens of thousands of demonstrators have flocked the streets of Cairo and other parts of Egypt since Tuesday as part of the biggest anti-government protests in years, demanding the ouster of Mubarak after three daces in power.

    Despite a night-time curfew in major cities across Egypt, protesters spilled out into the streets of several cities and were seen in significant numbers even in the early hours of Saturday morning.

    On Friday, Mubarak sacked his cabinet and called for national dialogue in an attempt to staunch the flow of public outcry over poverty, high unemployment rates and rampant corruption.

    Medical sources say at least 27 people have so far been killed and over a thousand injured in clashes in Cairo, Suez and Alexandria.