By now we’ve all heard a number of analyses of the events in Egypt and the outbreak of revolutionary fervor that is toppling regimes throughout the Arab world: It’s a replay of the revolution that overthrew the shah of Iran and installed the Ayatollah Khomeini (say the neocons); it’s all a sinister plot to install a Muslim “caliphate” and institute sharia—and socialism—throughout the world (Glenn Beck, off his meds again); and even that it’s a replay of the revolutions of 1848, as Cato Institute analyst Leon Hadar would have it, a time of turmoil in which “the demise of Europe’s ruling elites—the traditional protectors of the Jews—was at the core of the great tragedy of European Jews in the modern times.”

In reality, the seismic eruption now shaking the Middle East has nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood, the ayatollahs of Iran, or—believe it or not—the Jews of Europe or anywhere else.  It’s all about Mohamed Bouazizi.

Let me explain.

The spark that ignited this fire was set by a 26-year-old vegetable vendor who peddled his wares in the marketplace of Sidi Bouzid, a small town in central Tunisia.  His father had died when he was ten, and at the age of nineteen he quit school and became the main provider for his family of five younger siblings.  He tried to join the army, without success; he attempted to get a job at one of the local factories, but he wasn’t hired.  He had little choice but to go to the market and sell fresh produce—and that’s where the trouble started.

The local cops, who had targeted Bou­azizi since he was a child, had other ideas: They continually harassed him, demanding that he produce a license—though no such license is required by law—and they confronted him time and again.  Yet he persisted, because he had no choice.  Every single day, the honest and hardworking Bouazizi pushed his wooden cart, loaded down with vegetables, and walked three miles to the souk. And practically every day, the local cops tried to stop him.  “Since he was a child, they were mistreating him,” says Hajlaoui Jaafer, a friend.  “He was used to it.  I saw him humiliated.”

They fined him 400 Tunisian dinars—two months’ earnings.  They confiscated his produce and his scales.  And then, on December 17, a policewoman got in his face on the way to the market.  She warned him not to try to peddle his vegetables and returned with two other cops to confiscate his scales.  He swore at her, the “lady” cop swore back and slapped him, and the two other police officers wrestled him to the ground.  His produce and scale were confiscated, and he was warned not to appear at the market again.  All this happened in full view of the villagers.

So Bouazizi went to the city hall to go “legal” and get a permit.  He was told the pertinent officials were “in a meeting” and would not see him in any event: They wouldn’t let him in the door.  Bouazizi left, but he returned later that day—with a can of kerosene.  Calmly, he poured the kerosene over his body and lit a match.

Bouazizi was quite well known in Sidi Bouzid.  He often gave his produce away to poor families.  News of his death—and the reason for it—spread quickly.  A crowd gathered in front of city hall, and the protests became a daily occurrence.  His family and neighbors were the first protesters, but the movement soon took on a life of its own, as the news of Bouazizi’s self-immolation inspired what became a national movement, leaping far beyond Tunisia’s borders.

The “president” of Tunisia, Ben Ali, made an effort to derail the protests by visiting Bouazizi in the hospital just before he died, but it was too late.  A few weeks later, Ben Ali was out of office and on his way out of the country—and the Arab revolution had begun.  Regardless of how it may end, it began not with the call of the Muslim Brotherhood, not with some Jacobin cabal in a dark room, but in the mind of a simple and humble man, who never asked for anything but a stall at the souk.

I’m not religious, but I remember my Sunday-school lessons: God, we were told, often picks the humblest, the most marginal, the most unlikely to reveal His will and inspire the unrepentant atheists among us.  As unlikely as the prospect of a Saint Mohamed may be, the miracle wrought by Bouazizi has left me wondering and has shaken my skepticism at its core.