On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old fruit vendor, stood in front of a municipal building in the town of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia and shouted, “How do you expect me to make a living?”
He’d endured years of official corruption and harassment that had cumulated the day before with a city official slapping him in the face, spitting on him, confiscating his scales, and tossing aside his goods. When Bouazizi went to the city to complain, he was dismissed. Pressed to a point his dignity could not bear, Bouazizi doused his body with gasoline and set himself on fire.
It was the last desperate, public protest of a life frustrated at every turn. At least in his painful death he would get the voice he’d never had in life.
He ended up with burns over 90 percent of his body and lived another 18 days before dying on January 4, 2011. One can only imagine how horrible his last few weeks were.
But within hours of his action, protests started to erupt around Tunisia, building on anger over the decades of oppression Tunisians had suffered under the corrupt state of autocratic President Ben Ali. In mid-January, Ben Ali fled the country, and the Arab spring was launched. The unrest has spread to Europe, and one wonders if even the United States and China will be immune if the current economic stagnation continues much longer.
I’ve been thinking about what could push someone to self-immolate, and the incredible repercussions of Bouazizi’s last ditch. It seems that history often chugs along on its course until derailed by some seemingly small event. Later, everyone looks back and realizes that the path was unsustainable, and the once unthinkable in hindsight becomes inevitable.
On the same topic, this is an interesting video on the use of self-immolation as a political tool. WARNING: It contains some graphic and disturbing images.