Tunisia honors birthplace of Arab Spring

Tunisians celebrate on December 17, 2011 in Sidi Bouzid's Mohamed Bouazizi Square, named after the fruit seller whose self-immolation one year ago today sparked the revolution that ousted a dictator and ignited the Arab Spring. FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

SIDI BOUZID, Tunisia - It was in this hardscrabble town in Tunisia's arid interior that exactly one year ago the death knell sounded for the decades-old system of dictatorships across the Arab world.

With a desperate act of self-immolation, a 26-year-old fruit-seller in Sidi Bouzid unwittingly unleashed a year of turmoil that toppled at least three autocrats in a region once thought to be immune to democracy.

Tunisia's new leaders are part of a festival for the revolution in Sidi Bouzid starting Saturday, to honor the vendor and the protesters whose indignance snowballed into a nationwide and then region-wide phenomenon.

The changes in the Arab world over the past 12 months cannot be overstated. A region synonymous with stagnant authoritarian republics and monarchies is suddenly rife with change — for better or worse.

The biggest winners so far appear to be the long-repressed Islamist parties, which didn't always lead the revolts but in the subsequent elections in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco were the best organized and least tainted by the old regimes.

As the country that started the Arab Spring, Tunisia appears to be the farthest along in its transformation, having held its freest elections ever that brought to power a moderate Islamist party that most had thought had been oppressed out of existence.

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European tourists knew Tunisia under former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali for its sandy beaches and cosmopolitan ways, but for many of its people it was 23 years of suffocating iron-fisted rule.

Now a human rights activist is president and an Islamist politician who was jailed by Ben Ali for 15 years is the prime minister at the head of a coalition of left, liberal and religious parties.

The new president even announced on Friday that he was going to sell off his predecessor's many palaces to fund employment programs.

A person with a Tunisian flag walks past a statue representing the fruit cart of Mohamed Bouazizi, December 17, 2011 in Sidi Bouzid.
FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

It was one year ago that Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of the Sidi Bouzid town hall after he was publicly slapped and humiliated by a policewoman reprimanding him for selling his vegetables without a license. He suffered full-body burns, and died soon afterward.

Until then, he had spent his days pushing around a cart to sell his vegetables, but when his wares were confiscated and his pleas for restitution ignored by town officials, something snapped and a young man who had never left Tunisia transformed the Middle East.

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