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‘I started the Arab Spring. Now death is everywhere, and extremism blooming’

Faida Hamdy confiscated a vegetable stall in Tunisia five years ago today. Neither she nor the rest of the world could have imagined the consequences


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.

“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.

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


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