Suicide in Tunisia: acts of despair and protest - ROAPE
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Suicide in Tunisia: acts of despair and protest

Suicide in Tunisia: acts of despair and protest

In a blogpost drawing attention to the large number of suicides by immolation in Tunisia, Habib Ayeb explains that there has been an average of between 250 to 300 suicides per year since 2011. These desperate political acts are intended to draw attention to the dire social and political conditions experienced by millions of Tunisians in the years since the revolution (and the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi in December 2010). Translated by Max Ajl, the blogpost looks at the origins of the Tunisian revolution, and its broken promises. 

By Habib Ayeb

A few months ago, a young unemployed journalist set himself on fire in a public square of the city of Kasserine, in an arid region in central Tunisia, and one of the four poorest regions of the country, in protest against his socio-economic state. It was just the latest of a long series of suicides by immolation, since December 2010.

For the majority of Tunisians, and for some foreign observers, the immolation of a person suffering socio-economic difficulties immediately recalls the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi on December 17, 2010, which triggered a movement leading to the fall of the Zineddine Ben Ali dictatorship on January 14, 2011 and initiated what has been called – for 8 years now – the ‘Arab Spring.’ There is obviously a kind of mimicry in these suicides by immolation. However, this mimicry does not extend to all suicides in Tunisia, where the average number is between 250 and 300 per year since 2011. In Tunisia, probably elsewhere, too, suicide by immolation is a deliberate public act intended to sound an alarm about social and political conditions, and to provoke collective action on the part of those experiencing the same conditions or exposed to the same risks.

Those who choose this extreme method to kill themselves, paradoxically, try to make themselves more visible and audible by transmitting a political message that no one can ignore. By its brutality, fire attracts the eye – it scares, makes for anxiety, disquiet, questions. And, in some cases, it designates, names, and accuses. When a man chooses to kill himself, he evinces a refusal of anonymity and silence. He expresses a desire to convey a message that declines the ‘sociological identity’ of the victim. Instead, he designates the factors – or the people – who pushed him to suicide. He thus articulates his refusal to accept injustice and exclusion.

That said, is there a typical profile of those who immolate themselves by fire? Answering such a question requires psychoanalytical skills and would go well beyond the problematic of this blogpost. However, some common ‘traits’ can be emphasized. Generally, the victim is male, aged 20 to 40, unemployed or underemployed, from the country’s disadvantaged areas and neighborhoods, has participated in social movements for employment or for access to certain resources. He is single, and whether he is a university graduate or not, he has already taken steps, or at least tried, to improve his economic and social situation, albeit without success.

Through these features, we find the profile of Bouazizi. Furthermore, these many suicides reflect all the elements of the social and economic crisis in which the country has been plunged for several years. These suicides also reflect the incapacity of the new decision makers who took power in the aftermath of the fall of Ben Ali to imagine new economic and social policies which could meet the expectations and demands of those who initiated the revolution, and who now consider themselves betrayed and excluded from the ‘fruits’ of their commitment and their actions.

To fully understand this new phenomenon of ‘public’ suicide, and why it has become the most violent and extreme form of individual protest and resistance against social injustice, and exclusion and marginalization, it is useful to remember who Mohamed Bouazizi was: the first to publicly immolate himself to protest against an injustice, for which he laid blame and responsibility direct on the administration and the state.

Mohamed Bouazizi was neither a university graduate nor a rebel, and no one knew him outside his circle of close relations. His father was a former farm worker. He died and left three small children, including Mohamed, who at the time was only three years old. The family inherited a plot of less than three hectares of steppe land in the governorate of Sidi Bouzid – non-irrigated, and basically insufficient to support an entire family. To improve their income, the stepfamily tried to launch a small agricultural project on the inherited plots, by converting them to permanent irrigation, thanks to a line of credit it obtained from the National Agricultural Bank (BNA) in exchange for mortgaging the land. Unfortunately, they were not lucky. The family became heavily indebted, and unable to repay the loan. Events followed a mechanical sequence: seizure and resale of the land by the BNA, and loss of the only source of income, which had also been a vital material and symbolic capital.

In the early 2000s, Mohamed Bouazizi was a farm worker at an uncle’s farm, who would experience the same ill-fated agricultural experience: credit, deadlines not met, seizure and loss of mortgaged land. Mohamed, who again found himself out of work, decided to become an informal vegetable peddler, and equipped himself with a cart and the necessary equipment, such as a scale and other small tools. He did not count on the harassment of the administrative authorities and police officers, who did everything in their power to prevent him from working, multiplying their pressure on him, until the famous day of December 17, 2010 and the seizure of his work equipment – scales, trolley, and so forth. Furious, frustrated, and desperate, he ended up committing the last act of resistance he still felt capable of carrying out.

Mohamed Bouazizi was, in fact, only one of the many direct victims of the process of grabbing agricultural land and local natural resources by private agricultural investors – a process encouraged by the state under the pretext of reinforcing food security, guaranteed by the development of export agriculture.

By his gesture of despair and revolt, Bouazizi unwittingly accelerated long and complex processes, and set in motion an acceleration of these developments, which had already been largely underway for several years. We know the rest. But it remains to emphasize here that the sequence of events and Bouazizi’s own life-story shows that, in a certain sense, he did not ‘commit suicide.’ Rather, he was suicided.

‘Individual’ suicide and class solidarity

Bouazizi’s suicide must be understood by putting him, on the one hand, in his familial and personal context, and on the other hand, in the general context of the local rejection of national agricultural policies. Neoliberal and export-oriented policies have been imposed by the state since the country’s independence in 1956, in the name of development, modernization, and economics. However, by political decision, since the end of the 1980s the governorate of Sidi Bouzid has become a pole of intensive agricultural development. During these three decades, it has received the largest share of public and private investment. It is, today, the country’s leading agricultural region vis-à-vis production and investment, and one of the country’s four poorest regions.

Without a long ‘revolutionary’ process and a certain class consciousness, the death of Mohamed Bouazizi would probably never have gone beyond being a minor news item. Thus, it is important to resituate the ‘accelerated sequence’ (17 December 2010 – January 14, 2011) as part of the global revolutionary process that began well before December 2010 and continues to the present day. Based on the continuity of actions of protest and collective resistance, such as demonstrations, strikes, and sit-ins, which imply the continuity of the ‘process,’ it seems to me suitable to situate the beginning of the revolutionary process in January 2008, with massive strikes by phosphate mining workers in the southwest, starting with Redeyef, which lasted until June of the same year, despite the fierce government crackdown on strikers and their families. This was followed by many other similar actions throughout the south, east, and center of the country, until 17 December 2010.

Among the many events that preceded December 17, 2010, we must remember the demonstrations organized by farmers in June and July 2010 in downtown Sidi Bouzid, in front of the governorate headquarters. At the root of the discontent were demands for access to drinking water and irrigation water, agricultural land, subsidies and inputs, whose prices had risen sharply. There was also the matter of the behavior of investors from other parts of the country, whom local people call ‘foreigners’ and consider aggressive and contemptuous. There was also the problem of farmers’ indebtedness, to the BNA, for loans, or to STEG, the Tunisian electricity and gas company. There was an accumulation of unpaid bills, basically due to consumption of electricity for pumping irrigation water. The accumulated indebtedness of peasants, especially the smallest among them, had gradually become widespread, thereby preventing any hope for ‘remedy.’ Indebted peasants were threatened with, or were under, prosecution and were even at risk of losing their land.

Among the many demonstrators, several consistent testimonies, gathered during my numerous trips in the region, affirm that Mohamed Bouazizi was present and active at these demonstrations and sit-ins. In any case, the link between the peasant mobilizations in the summer of 2010 and those which followed Bouazizi’s desperate act seems obvious to me, and explains why this suicide, as opposed to a different one, triggered the actions in solidarity, which are now well-known.

We are here, indisputably, facing an act of ‘class solidarity’ from the region’s inhabitants, those directly affected – as was Bouazizi – by multiple local economic and social difficulties, including limited access to land and other resources I described above, and processes of dispossession of the local peasantry. For a few days, this class solidarity manifested itself throughout the country, starting from the ‘rural’ areas – including the ‘rural towns’ – before reaching the popular neighborhoods of the big cities and, finally, the large urban centers. The route of the protests, between December 17, 2010 and January 14, 2011, as well as that of the long revolutionary process, from January 2008-January 2011, demonstrates the existence of a certain class consciousness, one that extends beyond the peasantry to reach the entire ‘popular’ rural and urban population.

Disappointed expectations push young people towards extreme solutions

In 2011, vast waves of hope swept over the country, and hundreds of thousands of poor Tunisians began to dream of a better future. With Ben Ali and his mafia gang gone, such a dream had become possible, even achievable. Soon, the list of social and economic grievances grew, and expectations multiplied. But this occurred without taking into account the political and social elite, their interests linked to those of the dominant classes, and who considered themselves the legitimate heirs of the deposed leaders, and the natural guardians of the interests of the State and its prestige (haybat eddawla, a formula dear to Beji Caid Essebsi, the current president, elected in December 2014).

An elite has organized to monopolize the country’s political and financial powers by multiplying institutions and decision-making mechanisms, and by organizing a representative democracy that has two main benefits. First, it breaks with the system of dictatorship and the maintenance of decision-making powers in the hands of a relatively small number of actors. Second, it moves away from any possibility of the population’s effective participation in decision-making.

Meanwhile, the social and political difficulties of the country are growing inexorably

The structural imbalance between the coastal regions, in which wealth, infrastructure, investment, and ‘opportunities’ have accumulated for decades, and the interior regions, naturally rich in resources but economically underdeveloped, socially marginalized, and politically dominated, remains unchanged. Unemployment of young graduates continues to grow. It is important to realize that one in three graduates is currently unemployed, while the overall unemployment rate is between 18 and 25 percent of the total labor force.

On the other hand, poverty is increasing, jobs are becoming scarce, domestic investors are leaving the country, or are reluctant to invest in the wealth and value-producing sectors of the economy, and foreign investors are still reluctant to return. Finally, the Tunisian’s dinar’s fall against foreign currencies, a decline whose only theoretical interest is to favor exports, is reflected in a vertiginous rise in the prices of consumer products, especially those of imported products.

The result is a worsening of the feeling of abandonment and exclusion among the most disadvantaged social strata, particularly among the young, jobless, and destitute, who now encounter the closure of legal migration routes, and a lack of opportunities within the country. Some are tempted by the highly risky adventure of the harga – illegal migration, usually by sea – and many never reach the northern shore of the Mediterranean. Those who do not leave, often for lack of means, since illegal emigration is very expensive and always carries the risk of ending up in a tragedy, resign themselves to day-to-day survival, but generally develop a very strong feeling of frustration and of revolt that pushes some towards violence, political or otherwise, and others towards the extreme choice of suicide, whether spectacular or discreet.

The last suicide by immolation, mentioned at the beginning of this blogpost, was indisputably a politically considered and planned act. The video of this suicide, filmed by on-site witnesses, invaded all social networks ‘virally,’ causing a wave of protests, often at night, and sometimes violent, which were ‘spontaneously’ organized by hundreds of Kasserine’s young people, who live in extremely difficult social conditions and fear reaching such extreme choices. More broadly, all the social movements – demonstrations, strikes – which have taken place since January 2011, are undoubtedly part of the same complex revolutionary (or oppositional) processes that are nourished by the different mechanisms of social and economic dispossession, exclusion, and marginalization. After, like before January 2011, the main demand of all social movements is to support the right of fair and dignified access to the resources and services that the ‘revolution,’ stolen by the country’s economic and political elites, has not been able to secure.

Unfortunately, when politicians, policymakers and journalists evoke these young rebels, they speak simply of ‘thugs,’ even criminals.

Habib Ayeb is a writer, film-maker and activist. He is professor of geography at Université Paris 8 and a contributor to roape.net. Translated by Max Ajl. Max has a PhD in development sociology from Cornell and is work on the national liberation movement in Tunisia. He is a regular contributor to roape.net.

Featured Photograph: A protest in  Paris in support of Mohamed Bouazizi, ‘Hero of Tunisia’ (15 January, 2011).

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2 Comments
  • David Seddon
    Posted at 07:16h, 15 May Reply

    I was very moved by this piece by Habib Ayeb, whose activism combining various forms of communication, including film-making, is well-known inside and outside Tunisia. The structural deprivation that these individual acts of desperation – which are evidently a form of publicity and a response to deprivation and what is seen as injustice – is deep seated and long-lasting. It is probably the case that events in Tunisia in recent years, starting with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, have created a new sense of desperation, but I want to underline that attempts to respond to disadvantage and deprivation go back well before 2008, which Habib identifies as a ‘starting point’ for this series of suicides.

    Previously, however, these responses tended to be more collective, and it is perhaps a sign of the times that the recent forms of protest are personal and individual rather than collective – just as small farmers in India, who face debt and deprivation now more than ever, and commit suicide in appallingly large numbers, make this final appalling ‘gesture’. In the chapter on The Middle East and North Africa, in the book I edited with John Walton on Free Markets and Food Riots (Blackwells 1994), I drew attention to the fact that ‘in Tunisia in 1984, social unrest following price increases began in the Nefzaoua, a semi-arid region in the southwest (historically the poorest region of Tunisia), and then spread to other parts of the south’.

    I noted that ‘the southern interior generally has a high unemployment rate, and many men leave the area for work in the more prosperous towns on or near the coast; some 670,000 were employed as migrant labour in Libya in the early 1980s. The region also suffered considerably from the drought of 1983-84 which substantially reduced the local harvest. After the outbreak of mass protest in January 1984, a local observer in Kebili (one of the small southern towns where violent demonstrations took place) remarked that ‘it was not for bread that the young demonstrated but because they were the victims of unemployment’.

    Habib mentions that ‘unfortunately, when politicians, policy-makers and journalists evoke these young rebels, they speak simply of ‘thugs’, even criminals’. In 1984, when the young rebels rose up together in protest, they were widely caricatured as ‘agitators’ and it was suggested by the local authorities (eg the governors of Kebili and Gafsa) that they were ‘foreign-inspired’ or actually ‘Libyan or Lebanese trained.

    In this way, legitimate popular protest is re-defined by those in power – and even by some commentators – as the illegitimate actions of ‘thugs’ and ‘criminals’, and as somehow ‘alien’ to the way in which decent poor Tunisians are supposed to behave. I am reminded of the distinction made in England, not only historically but in contemporary discourse, between ‘the deserving poor’ and the ‘undeserving poor’ – today defined as ‘scroungers’ and even criminals.

  • David Seddon
    Posted at 07:27h, 15 May Reply

    Also, please do cross reference this piece by Habib Ayeb with my post in the project section on ‘Popular Protest, Social Movements and Class Struggle’ on recent events in Tunisia.

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