In late December 2010, in a Tunisian provincial town, familiar patterns of protest developed in new directions. Self-immolations, such as that of the soon-to-be well-known vendor, Muhammad Bouazizi, on 17 December 2010, were nothing especially new. Desperately trying to make a living and provide for families in survivalist enterprise, several men had in previous months protested the corruption and brutality of the police and the indifference of the authorities by setting themselves on fire in public. Not much had come of it. Familiar enough, in turn, were demonstrations and strikes, such as those over unemployment, government neglect, unfair contracting, and the indifference of much of the union leadership that briefly inspired the Gafsa mining basin of Tunisia in 2008. In late 2010, however, the confrontations with police that typically accompanied such protests only sparked wider mobilizations. New constituencies were drawn in: bloggers, lawyers, ever larger numbers of labour unionists, educated youth in the cities, satellite media, gang members, journalists, smugglers, women, and even members of the ruling party (Allal 2013; Hmed 2012). Someone, somewhere, started to demand that the people should bring down Ben Ali's long-entrenched regime (al-sha'b yurid/isqat al-nizam). This new slogan, its import unthinkable only weeks before, was taken up and roared all over the country with extraordinary force. Those who flooded into the streets signalled their disgust with a status quo declared unendurable. Suddenly, the well-worn poetry of Tunisia's national anthem took on a new life:
If, one day, a people desires to live
Then fate will answer their call
Darkness must dissipate
And must the chain give way(Colla et al. 2012)
Those on the streets called not for Islam, the most common (but not the only) protest frame in the region for decades, but for bread, dignity and freedom. Once the demonstrations were joined, and pitched battles with police successful, continuous occupations of key, urban public spaces emerged: the people would not go home until their demands were met. When the army refused to shoot on these masses of civilians, Ben Ali, strong-man president since 1987, boarded a plane for Saudi Arabia and never came back.
The region was electrified. No one had seen the fall of an entrenched Arab ‘president for life’ (Owen 2012) as a result of mass protest.