Sacrifice and the Ripple Effect of Tunisian Self-immolation

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

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