We welcome a guest column by AAA member Sami Hermez (PhD, Princeton University). Sami is a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Lebanese Studies at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford.
I was in Lebanon when the Tunisian revolt began. I attended an event with activists that made me feel hopeful because it was the first time that a large group of people came to rally behind a cause that was not Palestinian or Lebanese. Soon after, I was in Oxford when Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was deposed, and when the Egyptian revolts broke out days later on January 25, 2011. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets that day, in what was seen as an unprecedented act in Egypt. Since then, people in Egypt have inspired me, and I have been left in awe and disbelief that President Hosni Mubarak has been toppled and his regime left in decay. The revolts in Egypt and Tunisia left over 500 dead and thousands injured. It is these people’s sacrifices that I want to reflect on, and on their ability to sacrifice themselves for change, a powerful phenomenon that no regime could ever take away from its people.
Few deny the inspiration of the Tunisian revolts on the Egyptian scene. By most accounts, the Tunisian revolution was triggered on December 17, 2010 when Muhammad Bouazizi, a fruit seller from the town of Sidi Salah, set fire to himself after being banned by police from selling his vegetables and then being humiliated. Reports of his humiliation claim that a female police officer cursed and slapped him, and that after his complaints to the local Governor were dismissed, and within an hour of his humiliation, he lit himself on fire. These details may prove to be a lie, but they have already taken on the value of myth, and become the subject of songs, as this self-immolation is said to have sparked protests in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid that grew, day-by-day, and culminated in the eventual overthrow of the Tunisian president on January 14, 2011.
The years to come will certainly shed more light on the different local activities around Tunisia that served to turn Bouazizi’s act into a catalyst for national revolt rather than a localized incident. In the wake of Tunisia’s success, there were several cases of self-immolation across the Arab world, mainly in places like Egypt and Algeria. It is important to understand the Bouazizi sacrifice and the copycat cases, and to then reflect on the role of sacrifice to bring about change, the use of sacrifice in Egypt in particular, and why the other self-immolation cases did not engender the same reactions.
The strength of a sacrifice in fomenting social or political change relies to a large degree on the way the spectacle of sacrifice is received by the community to which one offers the sacrifice (e.g. the way Bouazizi’s sacrifice was received by Tunisians). The reception of a sacrifice is certainly contingent on a host of social, economic and political factors, but if the act is to be considered a sacrifice rather than its actor being a tragic hero, then it is also important to account for the community’s perception of the sacrificer’s motivations and beliefs. It is in these motivations and beliefs where fundamental differences lie between Bouazizi and his copycat followers.
Bouazizi committed his act partly based on a belief in the absurd notion that burning himself would restore his dignity and bring about justice in his life. Kierkegaard called this a “belief in the strength of the absurd.” The copycat cases, on the other hand, seemed to believe that their acts would start a revolution. This belief, however, poses a dilemma because the conviction of the copycat self-immolators that their acts would start revolts in their countries invalidates the strength of their sacrifice in the eyes of witnesses. If observers are going to react spontaneously, rather than be led by an army or group that can consciously engineer the terms of sacrifice and martyrdom, then they must believe the sacrifice to be out of pure passion if it is to take on a meaning of greatness. The sacrifice cannot be seen to be an imitation, and it cannot appear to have expectations of personal interests other than being a response to an injustice.
The people who watched the copycat cases seemed to have understood this and seen them as a mimicry of the acts in Tunisia. One can imagine these people going home whispering to each other “the poor boy, maybe he is a hero, but he is certainly an unfortunate fool, he thought he would be great like the boy in Sidi Bouzid but his act will not trigger revolt.” The thoughts of onlookers would have been consumed by thoughts that the sacrifice was intended for personal greatness. However, for the spectacle to have had a powerful impact and seize sovereignty from the state (by inciting a revolt), the sacrificer would have to act as a sovereign, independent from the gaze and expectations of onlookers, and away from thoughts of personal grandeur (see Garces 2010 for a powerful analysis of sacrifice and sovereignty). These thoughts of grandeur would themselves act to subjugate the sacrificer, and likely reveal him to onlookers as a type of unfortunate farce.
Egypt has its own heroes, ready to commit the ultimate sacrifice by suspending ethical limits in fits of passion. Indeed, we hear fathers literally speaking in terms of the Abrahamic filicide and ready to sacrifice their sons. Such an act would surely be murder in any other circumstance. Not here; not in a fit of passion in Tahrir Square where the father believes, on the strength of what would normally be absurd, that the sacrifice would bring about the nation and a renewed dignity and life for his sons.
Egypt has its own heroes of Tahrir Square, where people stood unprotected under the barrage of rocks and Molotov cocktails, ready to sacrifice themselves for freedom from oppression and tyranny. They are heroes because they are commonly received as such, like Bouazizi. Their reception as such is due to putting themselves clearly in harm’s way, facing death, instead of running for cover or giving up. More importantly, they did so from passion and with no concern for how their posture and confrontation would be received. At least this is the spirit in which we, the community they sacrifice for, seem to have received these acts.
The difference between the copycat self-immolators and the Egyptian protestors in the frontlines of fire is that the former reacted to Bouazizi, and seemed to believe that it was the act itself rather than the way it was performed that would bring about change. While the latter, in their moment of confrontation, appeared to have acted out of pure passion, creating their own new imageries of sacrifice, with a faith that was unspoken, un-thought and un-uttered. They appeared to believe in their cause and did not act determinedly, but rather on the notion that their leap into the throws of death—their sacrifice—would recreate the nation. Onlookers see this and admire it. It is partly this admiration from onlookers that creates newfound hope and inspiration for change, and leads people to revolt.
As I watch Egyptians create their world anew, I cannot help but feel that there can be no political change without sacrifice, and without the passionate willingness to leap— symbolically or physically—towards death. The people in Tahrir Square remain anonymous to most of us today, and those whose sacrifice brought them death have no chance to see the new Egypt. But each of them has a story that brings them to the moment of confrontation, when all the fear they thought consumed them was no more. And each of them, contrary to Kierkegaard, who tells us that if we reflect then there can be no movement and no action, has likely reflected before their moment of fateful confrontation at the intersections of Tahrir Square.
As I continue to watch the events in Egypt unfold, I question how we might ever fight political battles without needing to make the ultimate sacrifice. The very notion of a sacrifice will always present ethical limits: the love of one’s children and value for one’s life is confronted with the ethics of the greater good. Is it right to take a leap towards death, to send your sons and daughters—or yourself—towards the infinite, simply on the belief that this will create a more just society, and without guarantees of the outcome? Have we no other mechanisms for radical change? The question is posed not to those who sacrifice, but to the onlookers, those around the world and perhaps in every society who cheer and are inspired by such acts of faith in order to make their own first move.