How a slap sparked Tunisia's revolution

Bob Simon reports on the protests that ousted a repressive government and spread to other nations

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The wave of revolutions sweeping the Arab world started in a forgotten town in the flatlands of Tunisia. It was an unlikely place for history to be made. But so was Tunisia itself, the smallest country in North Africa, strategically irrelevant, with no oil and not much of an army.

It has been an oasis of tranquility in this tumultuous part of the world, famous for its beaches, its couscous and its wonderful weather. But there was a dark side to paradise: for 23 years, Tunisia was ruled by a corrupt and ruthless dictator named Zine Ben Ali, who filled his prisons with anyone who spoke out against him.

A statue of Mark Zuckerberg in Tunisia?
Correspondent Bob Simon, fresh off the plane from Tunisia, explains how social media and other factors led to the Tunisian uprising that ignited Egypt and the rest of the Arab world.

Segment: The spark
Extra: Tunisia and Facebook
Extra: News of the ouster
Complete Coverage: Anger in the Arab World

He's gone now. A month ago, he left the country, quickly. In one of the most astonishing episodes of our time, he was overthrown by a popular uprising sparked by the desperate act of one simple man. If the Middle East is being transformed before our eyes today, it all began when a poor fruit vendor decided he just wasn't going to take it anymore.

Sidi Bouzid, a town of 40,000, doesn't get so much as a mention in the Tunisian guidebooks. Tourists don't come to the town. On the morning of Dec. 17, 26-yr.-old Mohammed Bouazizi was selling fruit from a cart as he did every day to support his family. He didn't have a license. But very few of the vendors did.

A municipal official, a woman, came by and confiscated his scale. It was worth $100 and Bouazizi knew he'd have to pay a bribe to get it back. This had happened to him before. But this time, he got mad. He complained and the woman slapped him. One slap in the face, and that's how the revolution began.

He ran, screaming, to the government office in the center of town. He wanted his scale back. That's all. But they wouldn't let him in. He went to a gas station, filled up a canister and went back to the government building. His friend Jamil, another fruit vendor, went with him. Jamil says Bouazizi stood in the middle of traffic, poured gas over himself and cried out, "How do you expect me to make a living?"

Then he lit a match. He barely survived.

Bouazizi's mother says her son wasn't political in any way. He just wanted to continue making his $10 a day and send his sisters away to college. But that slap was one indignity too many. It was illegal to demonstrate in Tunisia, but hundreds came from all over town to protest. Nothing like that had ever happened before in Sidi Bouzid.

"The symbol by just burning himself, using his body as a way to express that anger and need for dignity touched a lot of Tunisians," Zied Mhirsi told "60 Minutes" correspondent Bob Simon.

Mhirsi is a doctor and radio show host who was active in the uprising. He worked with us on our story.

"Do you think this revolution would have happened now if it hadn't been for Bouazizi?" Simon asked.

"I don't think so," Mhirsi replied, shaking his head.

The anger spread to other towns in the interior of the country, where unemployment among university graduates was approaching 50 percent. The dictator Ben Ali did the only thing he knew how to do: he turned to his police.

"The turning point, the real one here was the real bullets. Tunisia is one of the most peaceful countries you can ever think of. Tunisia, people don't have guns. Even robbers don't have guns. And then here we have the ruler, the government asking its police to shoot its own people using snipers, shooting people with real bullets in their heads," Mhirsi explained.

Hundreds of protesters were killed, but you wouldn't have heard anything about it on the state-run media. Twenty percent of Tunisians, however, are on Facebook, and Facebook had pictures.

Asked how Facebook was used to spread word of the unrest, Mhirsi said, "Facebook was the only video-sharing platform that was available to Tunisians. And seeing videos of people shot with real bullets in their heads on Facebook was shocking to many Tunisians."

Produced by Draggan Mihailovich and Nathalie Sommer