A year ago to the day, Officer Fadiya Hamdi slapped fruit vendor Mohammed Bouazizi across the face in the small Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, setting off upheavals that caused three seeming Arab dictators-for-life to lose power: Ben Ali of Tunisia resigned on January 14, Mubarak of Egypt resigned on February 11, and Qaddafi of Libya was killed on October 20. (In addition, Saleh of Yemen resigned on November 23 but that appears to be more a ruse to hang on to power than his really leaving office.)
Three observations on that slap: First, it brings to mind the famous fly-whisk incident (French: le coup d eventail) in neighboring Algeria on April 29, 1827, when the dey of Algiers (the Ottoman ruler of the region), Hussein ben Hassan, struck the French consul, Pierre Deval, with his fly whisk. The French government exploited this episode to go on to conquer the whole of Algeria over the next three years, and stayed for 132 more years. Granted that the fly-whisk was a manufactured incident and the slap a year ago was a real one – still the resemblance is striking.
Second, the slap confirms the butterfly effect – the idea going back to a 1972 academic paper by Edward Lorenz, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” that a miniscule, remote act can have momentous and unpredictable consequences.
Third, the events of the past year should put forever to rest the notion that Muslims are fatalistic. As I put it in 1983 about pre-modern life: “Although Muslim subjects were often referred to by the Arabic term ra‘iya (tended flock), indicating their passivity, it would be more apt to see them as cattle which, normally placid and complacent, sometimes turned against authorities and stampeded them. Rejection of the [traditional order] happened rarely, usually at moments of extreme crisis, but often enough to keep Muslim rulers apprehensive.” Indeed, those rules should not underestimate the volatility of their masses.