The mother of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian man who set himself on fire in an act of protest which inspired the Arab Spring, urged the new leaders the country is electing on Sunday to honour her son’s sacrifice by helping poor people like him.
“These elections are a moment of victory for my son who died defending dignity and liberty,” Manoubia Bouazizi, 53, told Reuters in an interview on Saturday, hours before polling stations open in Tunisia’s first ever free election.
“Nothing would have happened if my son had not reacted against voicelessness and a lack of respect.”
“But I hope the people who are going to govern will be able to keep this message in mind and give consideration to all Tunisians, including the poor,” she said, her eyes moist with emotion as she recalled her son.
Bouazizi, an unemployed university graduate in the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid, set himself on fire after he was driven to despair by police who confiscated his unlicensed fruit and vegetable cart. He later died in hospital.
His death unleashed a wave of anger about poverty, unemployment and repression which built into nationwide protests. Less than a month later, the protests forced president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country.
In turn, Tunisia’s revolution inspired people in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain to protest against their authoritarian rulers in an uprising that has reshaped the political landscape of the Arab world.
“My son was able to give all that for Tunisia,” said his mother. “He is no longer the son of Tunisia, he is the son of the whole world.”
“Thank you Bouazizi”
Since those events, life has changed for the Bouazizi family. They have left the one-storey house in a working class neighbourhood of Sidi Bouzid, where the family used to sleep on mattresses on the floor.
Manoubia Bouazizi, whose husband died several years ago, said living there became too stressful. With all the attention her son’s act of protest had attracted, his two teenage sisters were having trouble concentrating on their studies.
With the 20,000 Tunisian dinars ($14,000) which Ben Ali, in a desperate attempt to calm the unrest, gave the family, they moved to the capital. Now they live in a modest villa in La Marsa, an upmarket suburb of Tunis.
Mohamed and his legacy are the focus of the family’s life now.
“It gives me pleasure when people I don’t know say to me... ‘Thank you to Bouazizi. It’s thanks to him that working hours have been reduced’,” said his mother.
“Other people say to me, ‘Thank you to your son, it’s thanks to him that wages have gone up’.”
As Manoubia Bouazizi talked on the veranda, her 16-year-old daughter, Besma, sat next to her holding a poster-sized photograph of her brother, rolled up in her hands.
“My brother set fire to himself to give life to the new Tunisia,” she said.
Help for the poor
Sunday’s vote is for an assembly which will draft a new constitution to replace the one Ben Ali manipulated to entrench his power. It will also appoint an interim government and set elections for a new president and parliament.
The election has pitted Islamists, free for the first time to publicly express their faith, against secularist parties who say the Islamists will undermine Tunisia’s liberal traditions.
But away from the political salons of the capital, Tunisians want the election, more than anything, to bring a reduction in unemployment and an improvement in their living standards.
Manoubia Bouazizi said she was still undecided about who would get her vote. She said she was torn between the Progressive Democratic Party and the Congress for the Republic, both left-of-centre secularist groups.
“According to the television, they have said they are going to take an interest in the poor towns like Sidi Bouzid,” she said. “They will help poor people.”
“I’m an optimist. I wish success for my country and I hope that the parties will work together and avoid problems ... That’s my message to them.”
“I hope they are worthy of the loss that I suffered.”