I am writing this on the anniversary of the death of Jan Palach, the 19-year-old history student at Prague’s Charles University whose self-immolation in 1969 became the ultimate symbolic gesture of protest and disgust against totalitarianism and Soviet occupation.

His act, though not the first of its kind, was iconic. It fired the imagination of a generation and prompted others to imitate his example in protest against Communist despotism. Jan Zajíc and Evžen Plocek followed suit

in Czechoslovakia; Sándor Bauer in Hungary, Romas Kalanta in Lithuania; Oskar Brüsewitz in East Germany and Liviu Cornel Babeș in Romania.

Closer to our times, we still remember Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit-seller whose self-immolation sparked a revolution that led to the downfall of the Ben Ali regime. Indeed, his actions triggered protests all across North Africa and the Middle East. Bouazizi became a symbol of a revolution and of a generation which thirsted for change.

The press dubbed it the “Arab Spring”. Ten years removed from these events, this “spring” looks like a somewhat miserable winter. On the 10th anniversary, it becomes necessary to go beyond the clichés and the platitudes and re-examine the facts afresh.

Firstly, Bouazizi needs to be placed in his proper context. A year after his death, the Institute for Liberty and Democracy looked into the life of this 26-year-old. From interviews with family and friends, they concluded that he was a modest and somewhat apoli­tical family man who harboured no revolutionary aspirations.

From the young age of 12, he was the sole breadwinner of his family of seven. He aspired to keep on doing so and, perhaps, raise some capital for himself. His fruit and vegetable stall was his primary source of income. His grieving mother painfully recounts how his one ambition was to have a permanent stand at the wholesale market.

On the day of his self-immolation, he was again harassed by the corrupt police officers and inspectors. One such inspector, Fedia Hamdi, allegedly slapped him in front of his peers, insulted his dead father and confiscated his produce together with his electronic scales, leaving him unable to conduct his business. She was later acquitted of the charges against her – yet Bouazizi’s property had not been returned.

I tell you for the entire world to hear: everyone regrets the revolution...- André DeBattista

This is not a side detour into a sad and tragic event. Instead, it is necessary to understand that the initial spark was economic rather than political. Boua­zizi was driven to desperation after paying off corrupt officials and being deprived of the one source that allowed him to provide for his family. Bouazizi’s confiscated assets were worth approximately €200. That was his world; the only thing which kept him and his family from starving to death.

In the coverage of the Arab Spring, however, economic concerns were treated as a marginal sideshow to poli­tical issues. In this, as well as with other political developments, economic matters are often crucial concerns. We ignore these lessons at our peril.

Secondly, we need to look beyond the romanticisation of revolution. Revolutions tend to be depicted as brave and heroic affairs. We instantly think of Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People with the fearless personification of liberty holding the colours of the French Revolution in one hand. However, we overlook the bayoneted musket in the other hand; not to mention the dying and the dead beneath her feet.

Beyond the artistic realm, revolutions tend to be devoid of romanticism. Indeed, in addition to the blood and loss of life, they are cynical affairs – sordid and rotten to the core. Moreover, revolutions use “the people” as a smokescreen to mask the aspirations of commercial, middle class and factional interests.

The drive to have a tabula rasa and start from scratch allowed for the proliferation of groups which are far more dangerous than the authoritarian regimes. One group stands out: ISIS inculcated a culture of fear in Western Europe and embarked on widespread genocidal violence in Syria, Iraq and Libya.

After 10 years, it is necessary to take a more nuanced view of the so-called ‘spring’. There were some limited success stories. Among them is Tunisia which, despite the many hurdles it faces, is now slowly transitioning into a representative democracy.

Other countries, however, have not been so fortunate. Syria has been in a constant civil war for nearly 10 years; millions are displaced and approximately 590,000 people were killed. Libya is in a quasi-failed state with belligerent warlords and rival governments fuelling a seemingly perpetual state of instability. Yemen is in a state of civil war involving Saudi Arabia and Iran by proxy.

All these countries are experiencing an appalling humanitarian crisis which shows no sign of abating. Their economies have been wiped out.

The West bears some responsibility too. President Brack Obama had famously said that the lack of planning for after the revolutions was one of his greatest regrets, a somewhat insulting remark given all that took place.

In an anniversary feature marking five years from the start of the revolution, Hosni Kalaya, a compatriot of Bouazizi who had also self-immolated but survived, gave a very telling interview:

“A brave man won’t light himself on fire. You have to be a desperate man. All I wanted was a wife, kids and a house and to work on my own without needing any other person. My dreams were so simple... I went to the police station and I lit myself. I had nothing else to do. I couldn’t hit them. I couldn’t do anything else.”

Struggling with unemployment, his younger brother also self-immolated four years later. He did not survive.

Their desperate grieving mother poignantly reflected: “I thought this revolution would bring jobs to my sons and daughters. I thought injustice was over. But I tell you for the entire world to hear: everyone regrets the revolution... Why do they join ISIS? This is all because of poverty and misery and the government doesn’t care about them.”

Their words are a sobering reminder of this spring that never was.

André DeBattista is a political scientist.

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