The five weeks of protests in Tunisia that led to the toppling of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali have inspired demonstrators from Morocco to Yemen, but more controversially, so has the suicide by self-immolation by Mohammed Bouazizi that set off the unrest.
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At least 13 cases of people setting fire to themselves in protest have been recorded in the Middle East since Bouazizi, an unemployed university graduate, doused himself with petrol and set himself alight in the city of Sidi Bouzid on December 17. He was protesting official harassment of his street-side produce business, but his act quickly came to symbolize government abuse and the absence of economic opportunity.
In Egypt, at least six cases of self-immolation have been reported, including a man arrested last Thursday while trying to set himself on fire
outside the Egyptian parliament in downtown Cairo. Over the weekend, a Moroccan man set himself on fire in Casablanca as did a Mauritanian man who set himself on fire and died in hospital on Saturday. In Algeria, four men have reportedly set themselves on fire. Even in Saudi Arabia, whose people are insulated from poverty and inflation by oil wealth, a man in his 60s set himself on fire in the town of Samitah. He died in hospital on Sunday.
Even as cities across the region are struck by mass demonstrations, the images of people committing suicide by setting themselves afire may be doing more than anything else to spread protests across the Arab world, said Michael Biggs, a lecturer in sociology at Oxford University, who has studied the phenomenon of self-immolation.
“It’s very clear that death of Bouazizi had major political impact, and the cost for him was very high, but the political benefit seems to be high as well,” Biggs told The Media Line. “It’s the ultimate altruistic act. It shows that some people care enough about political change that they think it’s worth making that terrible sacrifice.”
Ben Ali took the trouble to visit the 26-year-old Bouazizi at his hospital bed in a show of sympathy December 28, six days before the young man succumbed to his burns and died.
As the phenomenon of self-immolation spreads, it has sparked a debate between Islamic legal scholars and political activists. Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, the seat of religious learning in the Sunni Muslim world, issued a statement January 18 saying that sharia, (Islamic religious law) prohibits suicide as a form of protest. Egypt’s Religious Endowments Ministry last week instructed the imams of all mosques across the country to warn about the prohibition of suicide in Islam in their Friday sermons.
Emad Gad, a political scientist at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said he had no doubt the warnings were issued on instructions from the government, which is concerned that Tunisian-style unrest may be difficult to contain. Opposition leaders, including the Muslim Brotherhood, plan a major day of protests on Tuesday.
But not all religious scholars were ready to condemn self-immolation. Sheik Yousuf Al-Qaradhawi, a celebrity cleric who articulates his views on the Al-Jazeera television network’s popular “Shariah and Life” program, termed Bouazizi a victim of Tunisia’s repressive rule, conditions that were no different elsewhere in the Arab world.
“This young man and others like him acted under mitigating circumstances,” Al-Qaradhawi said in the January 16 broadcast. “These [rulers] have brought the people to a state of psychological crisis. As I see it, he was not free when he made his decision. He was seething from within.”
He was challenged by another Islamic scholar, Abd Al-Fattah Idris, two days later, who said no one had forced Bouazizi to commit suicide. “The fact that he chose to take his life in such a manner means that he wasn’t deprived of his free will,” he told Egypt’s Al-Hayat television.
In fact, Biggs said he was pretty sure that at least some of the self-immolation cases over the last week were motivated by person problems. Earlier waves of self-immolation, such as the one sparked by the 1969 suicide of Czech student Jan Palach protesting the Soviet occupation of his country, inspired both political protesters and people suffering depression to engage in copycat acts.
Ali Abu Awwad, co-founder of the Palestinian group Al-Tariq, which advocates non-violent protest, said he was impressed by the Tunisians’ courage and persistence in pressing their government for change and reform. But he said he had little use for self-immolation as a form of protest.
“It’s not an example of non-violence,” he told The Media Line. “It’s the language of desperation. Non-violence is when you invest your pain in harmony with humanity, not killing yourself.”
Biggs estimates that as many as 3,000 people sacrificed their lives in self-immolation between 1963 and 2002, a period that was the subject of a study he conducted. They include the famous case of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, who set himself affair in 1963 in protest against the government and its U.S. allies.
While Islam has become linked with suicide attacks over the last two decades, suicide itself is uncommon and frowned upon in the Muslim world, said Biggs. In Afghanistan, women often commit suicide themselves afire, but they do it is to escape difficult lives, not as a political protest. One of the few exceptions was a wave of self-immolations by Kurds in the late 1990s, but these took place in Europe rather than on their home territory, Biggs said.
While protests continued in Tunisia on Monday as police fired tear gas at stone-throwing protesters outside Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi's offices in Tunis, elsewhere in the Arab world the last wave of demonstrations occurred on Friday following Friday prayers, a traditional time for mass protests.
Ahram’s Gad said he believed the wave of protests across the Arab world
hadn’t yet run their course, although he skeptical that acts of
self-immolation would continue to inspire dissidence. On the other hand,
police violence could have that effect, he said.
But Abu Awwad said he was doubtful that Tunisia’s model of civil protest
would catch on elsewhere in the region. In some place, like Jordan
where protests have welled up, reforms and anti-corruption campaign are
being undertaken by the government. But even in places where social and
political malaise is deep, he discounted the likelihood of mass protest.
“What happened was very unique to Tunisia,” Abu Awaad said. “Nobody
expected Tunisia people would stand streets in the street for day and
day until they brought down to dictatorship.”