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Tunisian Fruit Seller’s Death Helped Unleash Arab World Turmoil

April 5, 2011 at 6:58 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, the fallout from the Arab revolts on the rest of the world.

Margaret Warner reports.

MARGARET WARNER: The demonstrations that erupted in Tunisia last December, sparking a wider revolt throughout the Arab world, were touched off by a young fruit seller who set himself on fire after being harassed by police.

His story and a photo of his charred body in a hospital bed spread on the Internet. Protests erupted, and in less than a month, on January 14, Tunisia’s strongman president, Zine Ben Ali, had resigned.

Since then, with an assist from social media, Arabs elsewhere have taken to the streets demanding more dignity, less corruption and democratic and economic reforms. In Egypt in late January, activists massed by the tens of thousands in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. After 18 days of protests and a push from his own army, longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down.

Demonstrations also broke out in Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and Syria, and more modestly, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The Obama administration has responded by calling on autocratic Arab leaders to make reforms and avoid violence. But in Libya last month, the U.S. and a NATO coalition under a U.N. resolution, intervened militarily to protect civilians and support rebels fighting President Moammar Gadhafi’s forces.

There’s been some apparent reaction in other parts of the world as well, most notably in China. The government has cracked down further on dissent and on any stirrings on the streets or the Internet of a Chinese version of the Arab spring.