The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.
So speaks the first few lines of our constitution. They should be enshrined in everything we do – for if we’re not fighting for this, then, as Liberals, what are we fighting for at all?
So when I think about who should be the Liberal Voice of the Year, I think about who has done most to make those values real. Whose actions in 2011 have done most to enable more people to live in fair, free and open societies, and promote equality of rights?
In 2011, one person stands above all others. Mohamed Al Bouazizi.
For those who don’t know, Mohamed al Bouazizi was a fruit seller in a small Tunisian provincial town called Sidi Bouzid. Following a confrontation with a local government inspector and several failed attempts to get anyone in authority to listen to his complaints, Mr Bouazizi set fire to himself in protest at his treatment, and the treatment of millions of Tunisians like him, in front of the local Governors office.
He died on Jan 4th 2011 from his injuries. Before his death, rioting, sparked by his actions had spread from Sidi Bouzid across Tunisia. President Zine el-Abine visited him in his hospital to try and quell the protests, and when civil unrest continued, the President was forced to flee the country. It was the birth of the Arab Spring.
Since then of course, democracy has arrived in Tunisia, with free and fair elections leading to a new government. Dictatorships have fallen in Egypt (the world watches to see how the military will make handle the transition to, hopefully, full democracy) and now Libya. The President of Yemen has been forced to flee, we see protests in Syria, Qatar, even Saudi Arabia.
The Arab Spring has done more to deliver the prospect of a fairer freer and more open society for more people than any other movement in decades – all started by the actions of just one man in a small Tunisian desert town. While he could never have foreseen just where his actions would lead, there is little doubt that Mohamed Al Bouazizi has started a revolution that, more than anything else, means he must be the Liberal Voice of 2011.