Self-Immolation, Catalyst of the Arab Spring, Is Now a Grim Trend

Seven years after Mohamed Bouazizi's desperate and dramatic protest helped start revolutions across the region, frustration at the failed promise of the Arab Spring is widespread

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A poster of Mohamed Bouazizi, the fruit seller whose self-immolation set off the country’s revolution in 2010, in Sidi Bouzid.
A poster of Mohamed Bouazizi, the fruit seller whose self-immolation set off the country’s revolution in 2010, in Sidi Bouzid. Credit: Tara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times
Lilia Blaise, The New York Times
Lilia Blaise, The New York Times

TEBOURBA, Tunisia — When Adel Dridi poured gasoline on his head and set himself on fire in May, his first thought was of his mother, Dalila, whose name is roughly tattooed on his arm. But another person was also on his mind: Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation in 2010 set off the Arab Spring uprisings.

Mr. Dridi, 31, is also a fruit seller, and, like Mr. Bouazizi, he snapped after the police spilled his apricots, bananas and strawberries on the ground in front of the city hall here in his hometown.

“I wanted to burn myself because I was burning inside,” Mr. Dridi said in an interview while lying on a mattress in his family’s home, where he was still recovering, his neck and chest scarred by burns. “I wanted to die this way.”

Seven years after Mr. Bouazizi’s desperate and dramatic protest helped start revolutions across the region, frustration at the failed promise of the Arab Spring is widespread. Authoritarian rule has returned to Egypt. Libya is a caldron of chaos. Syria and Iraq are torn by civil wars. The gulf monarchies are essentially unchanged. Neighboring Algeria is paralyzed.

Yet it is a paramount irony that in Tunisia — cradle of the Arab Spring and the one country that has the best hope of realizing its aspirations for democracy and prosperity — Mr. Bouazizi’s once-extraordinary act has become commonplace, whether compelled by anger, depression or bitter disappointment, or to publicly challenge the authorities.

Tunisia has advanced more than any other country in the region toward freedom and democratic governance, yet it has been largely unable to provide hope and opportunity for a better life. Thousands of young people have abandoned the country to work abroad or to join the Islamic State.

Adel Dridi recuperating from his self-inflicted burns on the floor of his family’s home in Tebourba, Tunisia. Credit: Tara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times

The frustration at that failure has no more gruesome expression than Tunisia’s tide of self-immolations.

Cases of self-immolation tripled in the five years after the revolution, according to one study. The country’s main burn hospital in Ben Arous, a suburb of Tunis, admitted a record 104 patients who had set fire to themselves in 2016.

The hospital had seen an average of more than 80 cases a year since 2011, the surgeon in charge of the burn ward, Dr. Amen Allah Messadine, said. The public protest is now the second-most-common form of suicide in this country of 11 million people.

“The problem is that it does not decrease,” said Dr. Messadine, who has been at the front line of the trend.

For public health officials, the phenomenon is as perplexing as it is disturbing. But it is also regarded as a profound measure of the unsettling change, economic hardship and lingering sense of injustice that define life in Tunisia, even since its democratic revolution.

“This kind of suicide stands more as a dissenting attitude toward the post-revolution society, which deeply changed,” said Dr. Mehdi Ben Khelil, the forensic pathologist who conducted the study showing how the number of self-immolations had increased.

Rimeh Messaoudi in the bedroom she used to share with her brother Ramzi, who self-immolated in the courtyard of his high school.Credit: Tara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times

Mr. Dridi, the only breadwinner for his mother and family since the age of 14, said he had wanted to do “like Bouazizi” on the morning of May 10, when police officers ordered him to leave, saying he had not paid for his vending spot.

“The police knocked over my stall,” he said. “But it got worse. They spilled my fruit and they took me to their car. Inside, they started beating me hard. I managed to escape and when I saw the gas station in front of me. I did not think twice.”

He splashed gasoline on himself directly from the pump and put a lighter to his neck. He was saved by a bus driver who put out the flames with a fire extinguisher.

Whereas most suicides before the revolution were for reasons of mental health, those since have been driven largely by economic hardship and a desire to challenge the authorities. They are often carried out in front of administration buildings.

Mr. Dridi had previously tried to burn himself in public in 2012, but was stopped by onlookers.

He said he had earned about $400 a month before the revolution, which is twice the minimum wage in Tunisia. Now, he said, he never knows how much he will sell, or how many times the police will harass him.

Nourredine Messaoudi holding the burned ID card of his son. Credit: Tara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times

Cases like his are a sign of social despair and resentment toward officialdom, medical personnel say.

“Most of those who survived told us they just could not take it anymore,” said Nadia Ben Slama, a psychologist at the Ben Arous hospital. “They frequently used two words in Arabic: el kahra, which means helplessness or the feeling of being oppressed, and the word hogra, which means scorn or contempt from others.”

“There is a symbolism in the public gesture of self-immolation,” she added. “It is usually to denounce injustice or an oppressor, but also to make the other one feel guilty, the one who witnessed the injustice and who did not act on it. That one is society in general.”

Sometimes self-immolation is threatened to force the hand of the authorities. That is what Imed Ghanmi, 43, an unemployed teacher, did when the police confiscated smuggled merchandise he was selling on the street to support his family.

“Imed used to pour gas on himself as a way to blackmail the police so they would give him back his merchandise,” his brother Ahmed Ghanmi said. “He had already done that as a last resort two or three times before and he told me it worked.”

The last time Mr. Ghanmi tried, in a police station, he set himself on fire and died. His family is still investigating whether it was a suicide or an accident and why the police did not help him.

The trend is touching a new, younger generation that has come of age since the revolution.

Ramzi Messaoudi set himself afire on Feb. 15 in the courtyard of his high school, while everyone was studying in class, in Bou Hajla, a small town in central Tunisia. He died three days later from his burns.

He had had disagreements with his English teacher, who repeatedly expelled him from class, his father and his friends said.

But his family is bewildered. His sister Rimeh, 20, who shared a bedroom with him, mourns over his school books. His father, Nourredine Messaoudi, a minibus driver, still holds on to his son’s burned bus card, neatly folded in his wallet.

He knew about his son’s problems at school and had tried to reason with him several times. “I told him he should call me if he had any more problems,” he said.

“I still don’t understand,” he added. “He was a good boy. He loved martial arts and soccer, he had many friends on Facebook and he wanted to be a military man.”

“He just could not take it anymore,” said Wissem Hadidi, 19, a childhood friend. “When he arrived at the hospital, he was still conscious and he was smiling and kept on repeating the word ‘injustice.’”

Ramzi Messaoudi’s act had a tragic aftermath. “I locked myself in my house for a week,” Mr. Hadidi said. “I could not go back to high school. You see, I literally saw him burning and I can still remember the smell.”

A week later, another pupil in the town, who was just 13, also tried to burn himself alive, but survived after a friend snuffed out the fire with his jacket.

Another study conducted by Dr. Mehdi concluded that the country was experiencing a copycat effect, in the wake of Mr. Bouazizi’s revolutionary act. The study called for urgent preventive measures in news coverage of suicides and in empowering young adults.

There has been a general increase of depression and suicide rates among teenagers since the revolution, said Fatma Charfi, who leads a Ministry of Health committee combating suicide.

“With the dictatorship, the state was ubiquitous; we were under a police rule and deviation was less possible,” Ms. Charfi said. “There were already suicides with self-immolation or hanging, but it was in the privacy of the home, not in the public sphere like today, and the youth is very exposed to this new phenomenon.”

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