The Slap that Triggered the Arab Spring “Was Impossible”

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It was an injustice that led a 26-year-old Tunisian street trader called Mohammed Bouazizi to douse himself in petrol and strike a match. The resulting conflagration killed Bouazizi, crackled through Tunisia, chasing out its despised President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, and sparked uprisings across the region that are still burning fiercely. On December 17, Bouazizi, a fruit and vegetable seller, was quietly doing business on the street in his home town of Sidi Bouzid when a female municipal inspector confiscated his cart and his wares and, adding grave insult to financial injury, slapped him. Bouazizi wasn’t killed instantly by the fire he set but clung on until Jan. 4. Ten days later Ben Ali fled the country.

The rest is history in the making—except for Bouazizi’s story, which appears to be history in the remaking. The municipal inspector Fedia Hamdi has broken her silence to contest this version of events. A British journalist Elizabeth Day tracked down Hamdi, 46, after a tribunal cleared her of the assault last Tuesday. The sole accuser claiming to have seen the slap had a grudge against Hamdi; four witnesses disputed his evidence. Hamdi herself claims when she asked Bouazizi to leave—he was hawking his wares without licence—he became angry and grabbed her hand, hurting her finger. “I would never have hit him. It was impossible because I am a woman, first of all, and I live in a traditionally Arab community which bans a woman from hitting a man. And, secondly, I was frightened,” Hamdi told Day.

Hamdi spent 111 days in detention awaiting the tribunal and says now she has been “a scapegoat.” Bouazizi’s suffering triggered the Arab Spring, but it seems he may not have been the only victim that day last December.