Mother Tells UN’s Ban How Son’s Suicide Sparked Tunisian Revolt
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made his last appointment in Tunis his most meaningful one: a visit with the mother of the 26-year-old unemployed Tunisian whose self-immolation sparked a revolution.
Ban heard firsthand of the despair that led her son to set himself on fire outside the governor’s office on Dec. 17. His death 19 days later triggered protests over unemployment, corruption and rising food prices that culminated in President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s Jan. 14 flight to Saudi Arabia.
“Mohamed Bouazizi’s story is as tragic as it is inspiring,” Ban told a gathering of civil society at the Regency Hotel in Tunis. “His cry resonated so widely that Tunisia and the rest of the Arab world will never be the same.”
The UN chief’s first foray in the region since the start of the popular uprisings began in Cairo and ended today in Tunis. Over his four-day visit, he sought to see for himself the “winds of change” in Tunisia and Egypt that have since spread to Bahrain, Yemen and Jordan.
“I am proud of my son, my son who contributed to the liberation of Tunisia,” Manoubieh Bouazizi said following her 10-minute meeting with Ban at the Regency Hotel in Tunis. Her comments in Arabic were translated into French by one of her daughters. “I am sure where my son is, he is happy.”
To support his extended family, including a sister at university, Bouazizi sold fruit and vegetables on a street in rural Sidi Bouzid, a four-hour drive from the capital. He was harassed and heckled by local police for not having a permit and his cart, the source of his livelihood, was confiscated. That final humiliation was the last straw.
“The real violation was the affront to Mohamed Bouazizi’s sense of human dignity,” Ban said. “The daily indignities, the crushing of a people’s potential.”
Ban’s visit to Egypt was also imbued with nods to important events in the country’s recent history.
On March 20, his arrival to Cairo coincided with 18 million people taking part in Egypt’s first referendum after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, with 77.2 percent of voters backing constitutional changes that pave the way for summer elections.
On the same day he held a joint news conference with Arab League Secretary-General Amre Moussa, one of Egypt’s most- experienced diplomats and a contender to be the country’s next president, Ban met with Internet activist Wael Ghoneim, the Google Inc. (GOOG) manager whose 11-day detention turned him into a hero for a disaffected Egyptian youth that drove the Jan. 25 revolt in Middle East’s most populous country.
Egypt’s Internet Activist
Ghoneim is the founder “We are all Khaled Said,” a Facebook Inc. page dedicated to a young Egyptian man whose death following a beating by Egyptian police was one of the catalyst for protests.
The trip wasn’t without setbacks. To reach Paris for an emergency international summit on Libya, Ban had to hitch a ride with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. Half an hour into his flight to Cairo, his plane had to turn back. He had to borrow a 13-seat French ministerial jet.
Five hours behind schedule, Ban went straight into a meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil El-Arabi. That was followed by an aborted effort to walk on Tahrir Square -- scene of massive demonstrations last month that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.
‘Down, Down USA!’
Ban was forced to turn back by security guards when he was encircled by an angry mob of pro-Qaddafi demonstrators chanting “Down, Down, USA!” and waving fists at him. Looking serene and even faintly amused, the secretary-general was escorted back to the Arab League headquarters via a back entrance.
“This is very democratic free society, where people have freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, whether positive or negative, against or for the Government or for the United Nations,” Ban told reporters in Cairo later. “I am prepared to receive any such expression, whether it is against the United Nations or for the United Nations.”
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