by Tom Watson
Every man’s pride has its price. In the case of Tarek el-Tayyib Mohamed Ben Bouazizi, it was the right to sell apples in the street. When even that was taken away, he killed himself by self-immolation.
His suicide sparked an uprising the world is still witnessing on the new, internet-enabled channels of the revolution.
Do not forget the name of Mohamed Bouazizi. David Cameron, on his trip to the Middle East, should be announcing a monument to him in London, lest we forget.
The grinding humiliation of Mohamed, inflicted by authoritarian bureaucrats of the Tunisian regime, caused him to take his life in the most gruesome fashion. Mannoubia, his grieving mother, simply said “It got to him deep inside, it hurt his pride”.
Pride is a powerful force, the abuse of which leads to unpredicted consequences. Leaders play with it at their peril. During my short time as a defence minister, I quizzed an official about the death of David Kelly. Norman Baker had been bombarding the MoD with parliamentary questions. It was the first time I’d fully understood the obsessive behaviour of Mr Baker. It will make him a dogmatic, eccentric but possibly effective minister.
The official, who had worked on the Chilcot inquiry, told me he believed that David Kelly took his life at the point he recognised his reputation would never recover after public exposure in the press. “They took away his pride”, the official ruefully declared. The memory has stuck with me. I didn’t last long as a defence minister after that.
“Thank you, Facebook” said one of the spray-painted messages on the walls of downtown Tunis.
Mark Zuckerberg, billionaire innovator and founder of Facebook, riding the crest of a global wave of fame.
Mohamed Bouazizi, debt-ridden street peddler of fruit, struggling to support his extended family.
Both were born in 1984.
Zuckerberg should be proud of the role his creation played in the revolution. Yet Mohammed Bouazizi’s death should serve as a constant reminder of the responsibility he carries as the founder of the most important social networking site on planet earth.
Social media give us power. It gave the powerless power – the power collectively to organise. Ask any trade unionist how potent this notion is.
As Clay Shirky says, social media allow groups to rapidly come together with very low barriers to entry. No wonder dictators are trying to find the off switch for the internet. And, as Evgeny Morozov warns us, oppressive regimes are monitoring self-publishing platforms to unravel the freedom networks they create.
Yesterday, as the images of a besuited David Cameron touring an empty Tahrir square in Egypt were beamed onto our screens, I thought what a ridiculous TV symbol he made. There was David flanked by diplomats, military officers, security personnel and bag carriers. It didn’t feel real. It wasn’t authentic.
It’s not that telly isn’t important. It’s been argued that satellite TV played a more potent role in the Egyptian military coup than social media. But it lacks the authenticity of an instant You Tube video captured on a mobile phone, or a tweet from a protestor who has witnessed the secret police beating the innocent.
Ten years ago, this image of former president Ben Ali at deathbed of Mohammed Bouazzi would have made the pages of the broadsheets. It would probably have been broadcast on television and interpreted by foreign policy specialists. People would not have been able to share their reaction and opinions to such an image. Last month the photograph caused fury and was scorned by tens of thousands for the tawdry desperate act it represented. People expressed their anger on facebook, twitter, mobile texts and finally on placards and through crowd chants.
The prime minister’s visit to Egypt seemed like a stunt because it was a stunt. A last minute change to a schedule in order to look like his trip wasn’t just about selling jet fighters to our important allies in the Middle East. Social media deconstruct these political stunts in minutes.
Cameron’s post-coup TV walkabout lacked another quality. It lacked leadership. It seems to be chasing events, not shaping them. There was no substance to the visit. It looked, as it was, that he was looking for a picture with a small boy in a square in which a revolution had taken place. He found the child and got to pat him on the head. The TV cameras got their image. The prime minister returned to the airport.
Today, I am no wiser as to what our policy towards the new regime in Egypt is. And judging by the traffic on Twitter (not in anyway scientific but interesting nonetheless), so too do others find themselves confused by government policy. Is trade really our biggest foreign policy imperative? Is it the promotion of democracy, or security?
Things will get worse on this international trip. It looks like Kuwait and Oman will soon have more Typhoon fighter planes than the UK – and we make them. Cameron is going to find himself condemned for leading a giant sale of arms to an unpredictable region while being attacked at home for cutting our armed forces.
Nobody said politics is easy. But as I’ve mentioned before, these are unforced errors by the prime minister and his team. He didn’t have to take the leaders of the UK defence industry with him on the plane.
I don’t hold out much hope for the prime minister declaring that the nation will remember Mohamed Bouazizi. Maybe we should set up a Facebook group to discuss how we can come together to honour his memory and pay respects to his family.
Who would have thought it of a poor Tunisian street vendor? He’s changed the world. And that’s more than our own prime minister has achieved after nearly a year in office.
Mohammed Bouazizi. You will not be forgotten.
Tom Watson is Labour MP for West Bromwich East.