Suicide for a Cause

What’s behind the Middle East’s new trend of self-immolation?


On Dec. 17, 2010, a 26-year-old unemployed college graduate named Mohamed Bouazizi stood in front of a government office in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, poured gasoline over his body, and lit himself on fire. In doing so, he seems to have sparked a much broader flame that has spread throughout the country and much of North Africa.

Bouazizi has been credited as the "martyr who toppled the Tunisian government" and the political inspiration for a series of similar self-immolation attempts throughout the region. In the month that followed his now famous act, at least eight other individuals in Algeria, Mauritania, and Egypt have set themselves on fire.

Historically, self-immolation has often been seen as a political act, and the famous images of Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire to protest persecution in Vietnam stand out as particularly harrowing. The tactic has been used by political activists in China, India, the United States, the former Soviet Union, and a range of other countries.

It is thus no surprise that many commentators have been quick to attribute political motives to Bouazizi and those who followed him. For instance, though acknowledging that frustration and despair may have played a role in the Egyptian cases, Associated Press correspondent Hamza Hendawi declared that the immolations "are deeply symbolic means of protest in a region that has little or no tolerance for dissent."

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