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In Tunisia, Self-immolation Soars as Economy Tanks

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Tunisians pray in the old city of Tunis on December 17, 2013, as they mark the third anniversary of the self-immolation of a young street vendor that sparked the first Arab Spring uprising. Photo AFP ©AFP ⁃ SALAH HABIBI

In 2010, ten people in Tunisia reportedly set fire to themselves in protest against police corruption and economic hardship. They later died of their injuries. Tarek Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor who set himself alight in front of a municipal building in the city of Sidi Bouzid on 17 December, was the last of them.

Bouazizi’s suicide catalyzed protests that are credited with sparking the Arab Spring, eventually bringing down the authoritarian regimes of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. Bouazizi was named Time Magazine’s 2011 person of the year. The names of the other nine people who set themselves alight remain unknown.

Disturbingly, the number of suicides by self-immolation has tripled since the revolution. Public self-immolation in Tunisia seems to have been normalized.

“’Normalization’, that’s exactly the point,” Mehdi Ben Khelil, a doctor and researcher at the Charles Nicolle Hospital in the capital Tunis, told Fanack. “Self-immolation has become the second most common suicide method, instead of toxic ingestion. In 2018, the main burn unit in Tunisia admitted an estimated 45 people who had set themselves on fire. That’s not counting the number of attempts, which might be seven or eight times higher.”

The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), a civil society organization, reported four self-immolation attempts during spontaneous protests, including one group self-immolation, in April 2019 alone.

Overall, the number of suicides in northern Tunisia almost doubled after the 2011 revolution, from 1.8 to 3.12 suicides per 100,000 people in 2016, coming close to the national average of 3.29 suicides per 100,000 people per year, according to the Ministry of Health. It is a rate comparable to other countries in the MENA region but lower than Europe.

Bouazizi, who did not have a high school diploma and was unemployed, resorted to selling fruit and vegetables from a cart to support his family. Tunisia’s informal sector is largely unregulated, and vendors are at the mercy of arbitrary decisions by and harassment from the local authorities and police, making it difficult to earn a living. Following a series of run-ins with the police, it was the confiscation of his cart that finally drove Bouazizi to his lethal act of protest.

His situation was not unique. In 2010, the unemployment rate for young men without a high school diploma was 40.5 per cent. In the nine years since Bouazizi’s death, youth unemployment has further increased to 33.4 per cent.

“Bouazizi’s case was not exceptional,” Ben Khelil said, “but particularly after the fall of Ben Ali on 14 January 2011, the media fabricated a narrative in which it made him a revolutionary icon.” The fire images that the media spread were allegedly of a Buddhist monk or otherwise technically manipulated, he explained.

Post-revolution comparative research showed a worrying side-effect of Bouazizi’s mythification. Before 2011, self-immolation was the third or fourth most common method of suicide. Most of these cases were related to mental illness, marital conflicts (especially women) and financial problems, and took place in the victim’s home. After the revolution, the same studies reported a threefold increase in self-immolation. Specifically, self-immolation in public spaces and outside public administration buildings rapidly expanded. Simultaneously, more suicides were motivated by financial hardship or a conflict with a state representative.

Notably, people who turn to self-immolation, like Bouazizi, match the same profile as undocumented migrants or those participating in jihad: they are young, male, single or recently married, unemployed or a day worker, with no known psychiatric disorders.

“The widespread media coverage triggered a significant number of copycat suicide (attempts),” Ben Khelil said. “Whereas the media’s fascination with Bouazizi has faded, an identification effect has taken hold: victims of self-immolation have become people ‘like you and me’; people with whom many youth can identify.”

“It is a form of protest,” Najla Arfa, a social and economic rights defender at FTDES, told Fanack. “These are people desperately trying to improve their living conditions. It is a cry for help to the authorities; they want to be saved.”

She continued: “The people we work with are eventually willing to jeopardize their lives. When you talk to them, they say, ‘I have already lost my spirit and my soul, my body is all that’s left of me.”

“I define self-immolation in public as a form of communication, not necessarily as a suicide,” Ben Khelil said. “The – mostly – young men are seeking a way to express their desperation to society. We have to teach teens different techniques to cope with stress and anxiety.”

Tunisian journalist Abderrazak Zorgui, who set himself on fire in the city of Kasserine on 24 December 2018, posted a video message before his death expressing his disillusionment with the Arab Spring and calling for another revolution. His call set off days of protests and clashes with police.

Those who do not die from self-immolation face cruel consequences. “Their living conditions are even more burdensome after an attempt than before,” Arfa said. “(Local) authorities and the government ignore citizens’ needs and only provide first aid to save the victims, but there is no after-care.”

A radical shift is required, she said. “We need to break political tribalism and create a more inclusive democratic system. And the EU must open up its borders.”

Meanwhile, FTDES’ strategy is to mobilize citizens and fight the battle together, providing people with an alternative to the isolation they experience.

Ben Khelil, who is a member of the Ministry of Health’s committee on suicide prevention, offered some reassurance. “Suicide by self-immolation is generally covered in the public health care agenda. The ministry has put a suicide prevention strategy in place. We have trained psychologists to interpret suicide signals and are doing further research.”

However, he shares Arfa’s concerns. “Improving the economic situation is paramount. A suicide prevention strategy will do little if the Tunisian economy continues to slow down.”

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