From The Streets Of Tunisia To Wall Street

This Sunday, Tunisians will go to the polls for the first transparent, multi-party elections in their 3,000-year history.
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This Sunday, Tunisians will go to the polls for the first transparent, multi-party elections in their 3,000-year history. There is a sense of pride as they approach this rendez-vous with history, a sense of hope understandably mixed with fear as they head into uncharted territory. The stakes are high. Nine months ago nobody could have imagined this happening in the Arab world, and least of all Tunisia, presumed to be the most secure of all dictatorships in the region. As importantly, the election will also be closely watched by millions in the Arab world and elsewhere. Its outcome may determine their future too.

Mohamed Bouazizi -- the Tunisian fruit vendor whose self-immolation is recognized as the first act of defiance of the Arab Spring -- could never have known that when he set himself ablaze his act would ignite a revolution with global ramifications whose most recent ramblings are heard in downtown Manhattan, at the very seat of capitalism.

This revolution about the restoration of human dignity has quickly morphed and metastasized into the first major challenge to the inhumane side of globalization itself -- to a Wall Street-driven economy that widened the gap between rich and poor and weakened the middle class all over the world.

But, from the doom and gloom of forsaken Sidi Bouzid, a city in central Tunisia, to the glam and glitter of Wall Street, the trajectory of the Jasmin Revolution was all but linear.

Needing some eloquent symbolism to anchor their own narrative of heroism, Tunisians conveniently condensed their revolution to 23 days, when in fact it lasted a bit longer (Dec. 17 to January 14, 2011) to better contrast it with the 23-year eternity of Ben Ali's stifling rule. These are the "23 days" of mass demonstrations, kept alive by the sheer determination of Facebookers and Twitterers, the new digital jihadis for democracy, whose messages and images were relayed by TV stations around the world, which have changed the geopolitical landscape of North Africa and the Middle East, perhaps for ever.

After a thundering success in nearby Egypt, the protests spread elsewhere in the region -- Bahrain and Yemen, Libya, and Syria are, as we write, in the final birthing pains of their own revolutions. (The rest of the surviving Arab regimes are unpopular and illegitimate. All ripe for a radical change. Their days are numbered. Petro-monarchies have resorted to direct-cash bribes to buy time while they work hard to quash the Arab Spring in their countries.)

From the Middle East, echoes of the slogans of the Arab Spring were heard as far as the Middle Kingdom. In China in early February, 2011, human rights activists called for demonstrations to protest against corruption, lack of social and political reforms. They also dubbed their movement the Jasmine Revolution, a nod to Tunisians. Fearful of its own Arab Spring, the Chinese security apparatus quickly moved to block the word "jasmine" from the Internet, but in vain. "The authorities might have a hard time eradicating the word [jasmine] completely," the New York Times reports, citing the popularity of the word in China. For now, China hasn't seen its revolution spread. But in a nation of gaping inequalities and Internet-savvy youth, one wonders how long that can last.

If proud that their revolution is cited and celebrated, ironically, Tunisians are not fond of, and often take umbrage with, of the made-in-France namesake, "Jasmin Revolution," despite the fact that jasmin is the quintessential Tunisian symbol (the jasmine flower is highly prized, associated with Mediterranean sensuality, grace, elegance, and joie de vivre). Tunisians much prefer Thawrat al-Karama (the Dignity Revolution) or Thawrat al-Shabab (the Youth Revolution). The revolution by and for the youth, especially the tens of thousands of college graduates who often remain jobless many years after graduation, are the ones who suffered the most indignities in an economic and political system that mortgaged their future. In many people's minds, Karama and Shabab have become coextensive, often used interchangeably.

The fruit vendor, Bouazizi, was both indignant and young; educated and jobless. His profile is this generation's profile: the anyman or anywoman in an interconnected, globalized world that has ditched its commitment to the middle class.

From China, the revolutionary spirit spread to Europe -- where, in places like Spain, the most popular refrain heard in the streets of Tunisia was reprised in the term "cambio," or change. Youth unemployment in Spain stands at the staggering rate of 46.2%, and living costs are skyrocketing. For the disenchanted youth the only way to restore dignity is through regime change. The Tunisian Karamaistas (from Karama) are now dubbed by the Spanish press, a direct translation from the Arabic, as los indignados (the indignants).

Now the revolution has flown to Manhattan, "the irresistible capital of the cheque" (as Ruben Diario called it).

Today the birthplace of the Tunisian revolution has become a prism through which one assesses globalization itself. Tunisians' struggle came to represent all that is ailing our societies across the world: endemic corruption, unemployment and rising cost of living. A point of no return, certainly not back to the status quo. Inadvertently, perhaps, the country released, like Aladdin, the "genie" of liberty, a global challenge to the political establishment and warning to a Wall Street run amok.

At all the "Occupied" squares around the world, one word keeps cropping up: dignity (karama), a moral value hardly associated, to be sure, with youth culture, but one that is now at the center of a new social discourse.

Historians will recall that for Tunisians, a much earlier scene evokes today's Tunisia: Hannibal Barca, the famous Carthaginian general, ingested poison rather than continue to suffer indignity at the hands of his Roman tormentors. In the last throes of his life he was rumored to have quipped, "Let's release the Romans from their long anxiety..."

Mohammed Bouazizi released Tunisians, Arabs and many other people from the long anxiety of dictatorship and injustice. Every new "Occupied Wall Street" site, now sprouting everywhere in the world, will echo the name of the humble young fruit vendor. On Sunday, every ballot cast in Tunisia will be a homage to his memory.