Self-immolation is horrifying. Yet the pent-up turmoil and despair to which it
gives graphic expression has the potential to move masses to action.
was the case with Muhammad Bouazizi, a 26-yearold Tunisian college graduate who
set himself on fire last month. Unable to find employment commensurate with his
skills, Bouazizi settled for peddling fruits and vegetables in his home town. He
became despondent when security forces brutally destroyed his unlicensed cart
and confiscated his wares. His desperate act of protest touched a nerve with
educated Tunisian youths in situations similar to Bouazizi’s and helped spark a
It also set off a spate of self-immolation attempts this week
in Africa and the Middle East.
In Egypt, Abdu Abdel-Monaam Hamadah, a
48-year-old owner of a small restaurant, lit himself on fire outside the
parliament building in central Cairo in protest of a government policy
preventing restaurant owners from buying subsidized bread to resell to patrons.
And Yacoub Ould Dahoud, who had expressed discontent with the government, drove
to a government building in the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott, and torched
himself in his car. There were also several cases of self-immolation in
Until recently, media coverage of self-immolation has focused on
the women of Afghanistan. Horribly oppressed by a backward, male-dominated
Muslim extremism, women married off at a young age to brutally abusive spouses
have opted to put an end to their lives in a blaze rather than forfeit their
individuality. A combination of despair for one’s own future, and the hope that
a fiery death might bring change for others, seems to be the motivation for
self-immolation. But the recent outbreak of such incidents has started a new
“Those who are promoting fantasies and trying to ignite the
situation will not achieve their goals and will only harm themselves,” Egyptian
Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit announced in a particularly unfortunate turn
of phrase aimed at dismissing speculation that unrest in Tunisia would spread to
Perhaps. Still, many states in the region suffer from the same
problems – unemployment, slow growth, corrupt government, aging dictators – that
brought Tunisians out to protest. Protesters have taken to the streets in
Algeria and Jordan, demanding jobs and affordable food.
protests erupt into the kind of revolution Tunisia is experiencing is impossible
to know. What’s clear is that the actions taken by Tunisians are reverberating
around the region.
PART OF the reason for the widely-felt impact has been
the central role played by new media. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, MySpace,
Dailymotion, forums and blogs have collectively transformed the Arab
communications environment and shattered authoritarian regimes’ ability to
control the flow of information, images, ideas and opinions.
user-generated content has been utilized by satellite TV stations – in
particular Al Jazeera – even after authoritarian Arab regimes have succeeded in
closing down conventional news-gathering outlets.
However, the tremendous
impact of new media is not just in its ability to escape the careful monitoring
of Arab police states. The highly personalized dimension of a blogger’s entry or
an image put up on a Facebook page seems to offer profound human resonance.
Video footage of the deadly shooting of a demonstrator, for instance, takes on a
whole new meaning when it is contextualized not by an objective news
correspondent but by a blogger who witnessed the shooting or personally knew the
victim, or when it includes details from the victim’s Facebook
It is precisely new media’s focus on the personal, the uniquely
individualistic aspects of a popular struggle, that has made it such a potent
instrument in the hands of the opposition in Tunisia and in other authoritarian
Perhaps the recent flurry of self-immolation is an
extreme aspect of this trend toward individualism. The personal stories of
despair that led up to these acts of self-sacrifice are inevitably brought to
the forefront. And the very nature of protest through self-immolation emphasizes
the importance of exceptional individual acts and their capacity to generate
widespread empathy via self-identification.
It is no coincidence that it
is precisely this striving for individualistic freedom of expression, which
seems to be stronger than life itself, that autocratic Arab states fear so and
are working so hard to stamp out.