October 27, 2011
The Oxi Day Award is given in the spirit of recognizing people who struggle valiantly for freedom against overwhelming odds, and whose courage and determination affirm our faith in the capacity of human beings to resist evil and advance what is good. The award I have been asked to present this evening is to the people of Sidi Bouzid, the small inland city in Tunisia which rose up in protest last December when an unlicensed fruit peddler named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after a local policewoman humiliated him and confiscated his wares, and the governor’s office refused to hear his complaint.
This was the spark that ignited the revolutionary upheaval in the Middle East that has already led to the downfall of three tyrants, with more to come, and that is transforming the region and international politics — in ways, I should note, that are still not entirely clear. Sometimes when we look back on an event of this magnitude, we forget how truly miraculous it was. I was struck by a report earlier this week in The New York Times on the elections in Tunisia that described the uprising there as “the easiest of the Arab revolutions” because of Tunisia’s “relatively small, homogenous, educated population and because of the willingness of the Tunisian military to relinquish power.”
But there was nothing easy about the revolution in Tunisia. The Ben Ali dictatorship was one of the harshest in the Middle East; and the Middle East itself was almost universally viewed at the time as impervious to democratic revolution. Just two weeks before Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself, The Economist magazine ran an article summarizing the various arguments that had been offered to explain the democracy deficit in the Arab world – among them the undemocratic character of Islam and Arab culture, the manipulation by Arab rulers of the conflict with Israel and the fear of the Islamists, and the abundance of oil which both enriched the regimes and freed them from having to serve the needs of tax-paying citizens.
Even when the uprising began in Sidi Bouzid, no one paid much attention. The young people there, supported by the trade unions, protested for two weeks before the uprising spread to other Tunisian cities. They were alone and unrecognized, but they resisted and they fought, and they ended up changing history.
We have with us tonight one of the young people who was part of those protests. Jamel Bettaieb was born in Sidi Bouzid 30 years ago. He is an activist, a teacher of German, and an active member of the Secondary Education Union which is part of the UGTT, the main Tunisian labor federation that played a critical role in the revolution. He doesn’t pretend to be a leader. He’s more a rank-and-file activist, an emblematic individual who receives this honor tonight not for himself but on behalf of all the people of Sidi Bouzid and Tunisia, including Mohamed Bouazizi, who fought and sacrificed for freedom and dignity, and who moved the world forward at a moment of generalized pessimism, even despair. Appropriately, the $5,000 prize award will provide assistance to the poor and unemployed of Sidi Bouzid, who need it most.
It’s my great honor now to introduce a citizen of Sidi Bouzid, Jamel Bettaieb.