Slimane Rouissi in Tunis.
Two years ago, a young, impoverished vegetable seller named Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the central Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid. His desperate act sparked a revolution that ousted the country’s leader and marked the start of a series of revolutions throughout the region, now known as the Arab Spring. However, his story would never have been told throughout the world – or even outside his city – if it were not for a small group of activists, including a man named Slimane Rouissi.
We first met Rouissi six months before the Tunisian revolution. He had alerted us to a protest by farmers
in the Sidi Bouzid region, who were angry that their land was being seized by the government.
At the time, this story wasn’t covered by international media, being regarded as an isolated local matter. However it turned out that it was from this protest that the Tunisian revolution was born. On December 17, 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of the Sidi Bouzid police headquarters, the same small group of activists that had supported the farmers’ demonstration went up in arms over his death. They used his story to rally the city’s residents to protest, but at the time had no idea their angry cries would ultimately force President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s from power. Nor that one year later, the shock wave would have travelled all the way from Egypt to Libya to Syria and beyond.
Rouissi is one of the Sidi Bouzid activists who kicked off the protests. In his fifties, he does not at all resemble the young, Twitter-famous Tunisian revolutionaries regularly profiled in the media. In hindsight, however, it is clear he had a key role in this revolution.
We met Rouissi again in Tunis in late October 2011. The first question we asked him was about Bouazizi’s self-immolation. The version of the story that spread at the beginning of the revolution was one in which the young vegetable seller was said to have been slapped in the face by a policewoman. At the time, it was said that he had been repeatedly bullied by the police, and that this slap was the last straw for him. However, last April, Fadia Hamdi, the policewoman who had allegedly slapped Bouazizi, was cleared of all wrongdoing after having spent four months in prison. We asked Slimane how he felt about this policewoman’s ordeal, since she may not be the monster that she has been portrayed to be.