The guards and clerks gathered on the steps of the governor’s headquarters in Sidi Bouzid, laughing and shouting at the fruit peddler outside. As Mohamed Bouazizi climbed atop his fruit cart clutching a plastic bottle of paint thinner they urged him on, according to his brother Salem. “They never opened the gates to him, they just stood looking and laughing,” he said. “Some of them shouted, ‘Go on, Do it!”
Mohamed flicked his lighter and disappeared in a ball of flames, falling to the road.
They stopped laughing then. One of the guards grabbed a fire extinguisher and rushed from the gate to douse the flames. But the extinguisher was empty. It probably hadn’t been serviced in years.
The death of Mohammed Bouazizi almost three weeks later sparked a wave of popular protests that eventually brought down Tunisia’s president. The government could sense the rising danger: President Ben Ali’s people offered Bouazizi’s family two billion dinars (£880m) if they didn’t take his body back to Sidi Bouzid for a funeral, knowing that the outpouring of grief would rapidly turn to anger. “My brother is not for sale,” was Salem’s response.
But, dictators take note, Bouazizi might be still alive were it not for an empty extinguisher… and an autocratic, kleptocratic regime might still be in power.