Why Bouazizi burning set Arab world afire
Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi's desperate act of self-immolation triggered a shame in many Arabs that they hadn't done enough for their dignity and freedom, igniting protests for democracy. Under what conditions have such 'founding deaths' worked in other societies?
When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on December 17, 2010 – sparking protests that brought regime change in Tunisia and massive unrest in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world – he was unwittingly following an established pattern.Skip to next paragraph
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In an oppressive environment, a solitary act of highly visible self-immolation triggers a massive chain-reaction, which results in some major political changes.
Thích Quàng Đúc, a Buddhist monk, did it in Vietnam in June 1963, protesting against the persecution of Buddhists by the Ngô Đình Diem administration; and so did Jan Palach, a 21-year old philosophy student, in January 1969, when he set himself on fire in Prague’s Wenceslas Square to protest against the Soviet occupation of his country. The former’s gesture led to the toppling of Diem’s regime within months; the latter’s was sufficiently powerful to fuel the political imagination of the Czechoslovakian anti-communist resistance over the next two decades.
How is it possible that a single act, one individual’s suicide, can lead to political transformations on such a large scale? There is certainly no easy recipe. In fact, several factors have to conspire, in some unique fashion, to generate such an outcome. Sheer imitators hardly achieve anything precisely because they fail to see that the self-immolator himself plays only a small part within a much larger story.
First of all, the event has to take place in conditions of significant political and social oppression. A self-immolator is someone dead-serious about what he is doing, and the seriousness of his deed is only a reflection of a very grim context (or at least we should be able to construe it as such).
Second, the event has to take place in public. Self-immolation is performance by definition; the efficacy of martyrdom, political martyrdom included, depends as much on the performer’s action as it does on the crowd’s reaction.
Third, the self-immolator must emerge in the midst of a community marked by a diffuse sense of guilt due to its own inaction (“nobody does anything”). If the gesture occurs at the right moment and is sufficiently well advertised, it ends up shaming the others into “finally” doing something. What is fascinating about the shaming game is that, once started, nobody knows how it will end. First the Tunisians were put to shame by Bouazizi, then the Egyptians felt they were ashamed by the Tunisians. Who knows who will feel ashamed tomorrow?