Over many decades, tens of thousands of ordinary citizens in Middle Eastern states had been brutalized, arrested, tortured and killed before Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit salesman, set himself on fire in Tunisia, triggering the Arab Spring.
A unique pair of affronts set him off. A government inspector confiscated his fruit and slapped him in the face. Bouazizi was insulted, humiliated in public. And the inspector threatened his very livelihood.
His death resonated in a way that none of the previous abuses ever had. The reason: More than anything else, the ordinary people of the Middle East want dignity, greater prosperity and then, perhaps, more freedom.
Now, the anti-American foment sweeping through the Middle East demonstrates that the new governments, and the older but chastened ones, are still letting them down. While Arabs demand respect and good jobs, instead they are getting loud arguments over Islam and little else.
A national Gallup poll of Egyptians made public in July found that they overwhelmingly want their new government to focus on the economy and jobs. Ninety-five percent of those surveyed said their primary concern was the high cost of food; 88 percent complained about how hard it is to find a job. The statistics were the same among both secular and Islamic Egyptians.
Since then, the nation's unemployment rate has risen to almost 13 percent. And the World Bank says world food prices have risen 10 percent in just the last few months, potentially setting off another food crisis. But have you heard Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi talking about unemployment, food prices or any of that?
No. Instead, he has been appointing Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers as editors of state-managed newspapers. He's trying to curtail the authority of Egypt's secular court system. And when mobs sacked the U.S. embassy last week, he said almost nothing and made no significant effort to stop them -- until President Barack Obama called him to complain.
In Tunisia, meanwhile, unemployment now stands at just over 18 percent, 50 percent higher than the rate before the revolution Bouazizi spawned in December 2010. One reason: Tourism has flat-lined -- with good reason.
Last month, European newspapers widely reported that a gang of Salafist extremists wielding swords and clubs set upon a French official on vacation in northern Tunisia because his wife and 12-year-old daughter were wearing shorts and T-shirts. They beat him with the clubs. The British Telegraph newspaper story carried the headline: "Tourists should beware of Islamist mobs in Tunisia."
This summer, Tunisia's finance minister quit -- angry that the Islamist government had ordered him to pay significant financial compensation to 20,000 former political prisoners, nearly all of them Islamists. The ousted regime had imprisoned them.
"The high number of beneficiaries and the amount of compensation" will "result in a very heavy expenditure for the state's budget" at a time when the nation's financial situation is already dire, the departing minister warned. This month, the government showed where its heart really is. It authorized university students to wear veils, and Arrafah, a newly registered Islamic party, began calling for a national referendum to allow bigamy, a practice common among some Islamic fundamentalists.
Once again, the government seems to be doing nothing about the economy.
In Libya, meanwhile, unemployment is estimated to exceed 20 percent, and among young people it approaches 50 percent. But the major national debate in the week before the American ambassador was killed was about hard-line Salafists who were destroying historic Islamic shrines because they oppose the veneration of symbols. And that is the larger problem across the Middle East still -- millions of young people have no jobs and little hope while their governments debate religious dogma instead of helping them.
The median age in both Egypt and Libya is 25, meaning half the population is that age or younger. In Tunisia it's 30. These people, most of them unemployed, are the ones who carried out the Arab Spring revolts last year. They're the ones attacking U.S. embassies in Egypt and other states.
Who can blame them for being angry? They revolted, but their lives did not improve. In fact, in most Arab states the employment situation has grown worse while leaders argue about how women should dress and whether bigamy should be allowed.
I'm not trying to excuse these people for attacking American embassies and killing American officials. That's inexcusable. My point is that their self-interested Islamic governments, intent on religious aggrandizement instead of improving social welfare, hold most of the blame.
Writer Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times.