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Woman Who Confiscated Vegetable Stall In Tunisia That Sparked Off Arab Spring Says, ‘I Wish I’d Never Done It,

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It is hardly surprising that when Faida Hamdy wonders whether she is responsible for everything that happened after her moment of fame she is overwhelmed.

Mrs Hamdy was the council inspector who, five years ago today confiscated the vegetable stall of a street vendor in her dusty town in central Tunisia.

In despair, that young man set himself on fire in a protest outside the council offices. Within weeks, he was dead, dozens of young Arab men had copied him, riots had overthrown his president, and the Arab Spring was under way.

As the world marks the anniversary, Syria and Iraq are in flames, Libya has broken down, and the twin evils of militant terror and repression stalk the region.

Demonstrators face Egyptian police forces in the streets leading to Tahrir SquareDemonstrators face Egyptian police forces in the streets leading to Tahrir Square  Photo: Julian Simmonds?The Telegraph

“Sometimes I wish I’d never done it,” Mrs Hamdy told The Telegraph, in her only interview to mark the occasion.

Hers is a voice that has been rarely heard: the family of the young man, Mohammed Bouazizi, became unwilling celebrities in the weeks after his lingering death, but a nervous regime arrested Mrs Hamdy when the protests began.

By the time she was acquitted of all charges and released, President Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali had fallen, and media attention was focused on Egypt, Libya and Syria.

“I feel responsible for everything,” she went on. Her voice was shaky as she spoke of the traumatic consequences, five years that have transformed the Middle East but seemingly changed very little in poor, provincial towns like Sidi Bouzeid.

“Sometimes, I blame myself and say it is all because of me. I made history since I was the one who was there and my action contributed to it but look at us now. Meanwhile, Tunisians are suffering as always.”

Mohammed Bouazizi’s death triggered some deep nerve in the Arab world. Many myths were told about his own story and that of Mrs Hamdy, as there were about the nature of subsequent uprisings and downfalls, but there remains a basic truth underlying his experience and that of many others.

Demonstrators turn over a burned out car after reclaiming the side streets near Tahrir SquareDemonstrators turn over a burned out car after reclaiming the side streets near Tahrir Square  Photo: Julian Simmonds/The Telegraph

Corruption, stifling bureaucracy, and repressive police states were holding back a largely youthful population across the region, and their victims had little way to make their frustrations felt other than extreme actions.

Subsequent studies found that self-immolation had already become a common act in Tunisia, accounting already for 15 per cent of all burns cases in Tunis hospitals. Within six months, more than 100 Tunisians had followed suit, and scores more around the Arab world, from Morocco to Saudi Arabia and Iraq, had also set themselves on fire.

Still, not many observers could have imagined the chaos that would ensue, even when Mr Ben Ali gave way to weeks of protest and boarded a plane for Saudi Arabia with his wife and a large chunk of the country’s gold reserves.

Next Hosni Mubarak of Egypt went, after 18 days of telegenic demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Then Col Muammar Gaddafi was forced out, after protests turned into civil war and then international war, with the West’s air forces joining in.

By the time he was bayoneted and shot in October 2011, Syria was in flames, and the West was starting to vacillate about its role, with effects that can still be seen today. Libya, Syria and much of Iraq remain failed states. Egypt is on the brink.

In the process a social uprising had turned into a conflict between Islamism, part peaceful, part violent, and secular governments and politicians; and then between religious sects, as Sunni and Shia turned on each other.

Despite Mrs Hamdy’s despair at the poverty that remains in Tunisia, the country is still seen as the sole success. It has had two general elections in the years since, with a moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, winning the first, before stepping into opposition in the face of an alliance between secular parties that included members of the former regime last year

He told The Telegraph this week that he and his colleagues had decided to compromise after considering fundamental issues of what democracy meant.

“Majoritarian rule, 50 per cent of the vote, is not sufficient,” he said. He said he had always known, from the start of Tunisia’s political “transition”, that he would have to seek alliances, and in the first government Ennahda ruled alongside a centre-left secular party.

“We thought having a government with a majority would be enough,” he said. “Then we realised we needed more: we needed consensus.”

The difference between Tunisia and Egypt here is stark. While, as he points out, Egypt, Syria and Iraq are all more complex and difficult countries than Tunisia, the fact remains that Ennahda downplayed Islamist demands when the country drew up a constitution, the resulting document winning 94 per cent of the votes in the country’s constitutional assembly.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, which won the presidency by 52 per cent to 48 per cent, tried to force through an Islamist constitution by decree. It was toppled by a coup seven months later.

Syria and Libya, meanwhile, appear not to know the meaning of the word consensus.

Mr Ghannouchi, perhaps oddly, is still optimistic about the future of democracy in the Arab world. “The year 2011 was a leap from tyranny in the Arab world,” he said. “History shows that the transition to democracy is not always linear – the transitions that took place in France and Britain took over 100 years.”

“His death is destiny and I accept it,” she said at a café in the city. “But if he were here he would be the first in the street to ask for more dignity.

“My brother created something that greedy people are trying to destroy in the region. My brother is a lover of life and he would have rejected both the stupid politicians and death-loving extremists. My brother died for dignity not for wealth or an ideology.”

At the end of all the wars, few may end up remembering either him or Mrs Hamdy. The two began at opposite sides, but both now seem telescoped out of proportion by a history that became perverse beyond all recognition.

“Mohammed Bouazizi and I are both victims,” Mrs Hamdy said. “He lost his life and my life is not the same any more.

“When I look at the region and my country, I regret it all. Death everywhere and extremism blooming, and killing beautiful souls.”

Source: The Telegraph

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