Unending self-immolations in the Maghreb

For Maghrebi societies at large, self-immolation is not a problem that can be ignored

Oussama Romdhani
Oussama Romdhani
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Three years after Mohammad Bouazizi sparked a wave of uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East with his self-immolation, young people in Tunisia and the rest of North Africa continue setting themselves ablaze, in anger and despair.

More than hunger strikes or street rallies, self-immolation has emerged as the ultimate form of protest for desperate young people in the region and beyond. This has been particularly true in Algeria, Morocco, and especially in Tunisia. Since Dec. 17, 2010, the day Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire in the Tunisian western province of Sidi Bouzid, there have been 193 immolations in the birthplace of the “Arab spring,” according to Tunisian fire and rescue statistics.

For decades, Arab public opinion had thought of self-immolation as an “alien” phenomenon that could never spread to the region, especially in view of the interdiction by Islam of all forms of suicide. The only notorious example of self immolation in the region’s history was in fact that of Dido, Queen of Carthage, who, according to legend, ascended into a funeral pyre in 146 BC.

There were in fact no Arabs in the first self-immolations which struck the imagination of the world in the early sixties; when Vietnamese Buddhist monk Quang Duc burnt himself at a Saigon intersection in protest against the persecution of Buddhists by the Ngo Dinh Diem regime in South Vietnam. His act was “globalized” by fellow monks who invited international photographers and prevented fire trucks from coming to the scene. Then, there was the 1965 self-immolation of the 31-year old Baltimore Quaker Norman Morrison in front of the Pentagon, in protest against the Vietnam War. Another “famous” self-immolator was Jan Palach, a Prague student who protested the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia by setting himself ablaze in 1968. Self-immolations continued.

For at least a decade now, Maghrebi countries have been affected by the economic slowdown in Europe. They have been unable to create enough employment opportunities for young people, including university graduates

Oussama Romdhani

Self-immolations continued since then. According to Michael Biggs, a historian of self-immolation, as many as 3,000 individuals burnt themselves to death between 1963 and 2008. Among the perpetrators, he counted “Vietnamese Buddhists, South Korean leftists, Indian students, Chinese adherents of Falun Gong, and Kurdish nationalists in Western Europe.”

By the turn of the century, self-immolations had started to occur and to attract the attention of experts and officials in the Maghreb. It could not yet be described as a trend the way it would haunt the region a decade later. But the writing was on the wall. Local economies were developing at too slow a pace. Europe was closing its doors to Maghrebi immigrants. The ruling North African regimes were having a tough time dealing with impatient and ambitious youth who could not find satisfaction in utterly inadequate policies. Of even greater concern, young men were already willing to sacrifice their lives for a shot at reaching European shores or for a vague notion of “jihad” in distant lands abroad. Even if civil society and the media were starting to ring alarm bells, governments tried all kinds of palliatives, to no avail.


In March 2010, a young man named Abdessalem Trimech set himself ablaze in the Tunisian coastal city of Monastir. The city was shaken but there was no groundswell of support nor were there massive demonstrations. But by Dec. 17, 2010, when Bouazizi set himself ablaze, frustration was so high that when the act of self-immolation became known, it sparked an unstoppable wave of uprisings. Between March and December of that year, socio-political tensions had grown. The situation was different in Sidi Bouzid and the hinterland from the coast. Time and place created the historic momentum after his self-immolation. Costica Bradatan, a fellow at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study, rightfully pointed out that the Bouazizi case “only proves that when a grand narrative is ripe, it will have no problem inventing its own heroes.”

If self-immolations continued in Tunisia and the Maghreb since then, it is because the environment which bred such acts in the first place continued to exist. The fall of the Ben Ali regime and the fraying of the security apparatus further encouraged unrealistic expectations, and therefore frustration, among rebellious youth.

The profile of the average self-immolator did not change much after Bouazizi’s death. Individuals seeking to set themselves ablaze were, and remained, young of age. Tunisian statistics show that individuals who set themselves ablaze during the last three years, were essentially in the 20 to 40 age bracket (117 cases), followed by the above-40 age group (43 cases) and the below-20 age group (33 cases).

Candidates for self-immolation remained poor and not-well educated. A year after Bouazizi’s death, BBC correspondent Wyre Davies studied a sample of self-immolators. “They are mostly young men from poor, rural areas. They are also, generally, unmarried and have only basic education. Most importantly they are out of work and, despite strenuous efforts, they have little prospect of employment,” he concluded.

For at least a decade now, Maghrebi countries have been affected by the economic slowdown in Europe. They have been unable to create enough employment opportunities for young people, including university graduates. The situation did not change much during the last three years; although Maghrebi nations did take enough precautions to avoid a socio-economic meltdown. In Tunisia itself, the turbulent transition did not facilitate the hoped-for economic recovery. According to recent figures, Tunisia’s unemployment stands at 15.7 percent. If the general rate of unemployment has slightly improved compared to a year ago, the problem of unemployment of university graduates only worsened, growing from 31 percent to 33 percent. Everywhere in the Maghreb, youth unemployment has remained in the 20 percent to 30 percent bracket, if not higher.

As in most of the other MENA countries, nations of the Maghreb countries had been ill prepared to cope with the demographic phase known as the “youth bulge,” a stage where infant mortality decreases while fertility rates remain high. Unlike the East Asian nations, which were able to draw dividends from their “youth bulge” by creating enough value-added jobs, Maghreb countries suffered destabilizing effects from their demographic transition.

Furthermore, young aspirants entering the job market still face a double quandary. They have a hard time finding a way into the socio-economic system, whether with the help of the government or the private sector. Despite the youth’s clamoring for direct help by the state, governments (especially those not endowed with oil income) can hardly increase social expenditures to meet the demands of the unemployed and the restless.

Opportunities in the private sector are also too limited to absorb such demands. The “informal economy,” which attracts many of the unemployed and ill-educated segments of the population, is too precarious to constitute a reliable a source of income; even it constitutes no less than 30 to 40 percent of economic activity in the Maghreb. According to Masood Ahmed, director for the Middle East and Central Asia at the IMF, “the presence of a large informal sector serves as a red flag that a country’s growth is not inclusive enough.”

Research conducted by the Institute for Freedom and Democracy (ILD), has shown that virtually all individuals who attempted self-immolation after Bouazizi were informal sector workers. “Self-immolator after self-immolator, they were economic martyrs. All were expropriated, and essentially they died because they had no future left,” said Hernando De Soto, chairman of the ILD.

Maghreb employers decided last summer to launch a “North African Council for Inclusive Entrepreneurship,” in partnership with De Soto’s group. The purpose of the initiative is to “provide sustainable and inclusive solutions to the informal economy, which affects economic growth, social and regional integration, peace and stability in the region.” The success of the initiative will hinge on the cooperation of all state and non-state actors involved. But the complex “interests” at stake in the informal economy are likely to present a serious hurdle to substantial reform.

Psychology of despair

It is obvious, too, that not all self-immolations are rooted in socio-economics. Acts of despair are encouraged not only by the realization that there are not enough jobs and no prospects for better living conditions, but also by cultural and psychological factors.

Boston University researcher M. Chloe Mulderig, who carried out an anthropological study of Moroccan youth, put it well. She noted that “the most basic of societal contracts - that children will one day grow up, begin to contribute productively to society, and then raise families of their own - has been broken for an entire generation of youth in the Arab world trapped in a liminal period often referred to as “waithood.”

The reflexes of despair among young people are further reinforced by ambient sentiments that emphasize deteriorating conditions and ever-lower expectations. According to a recent “International Republican Institute” survey, 83 percent of Tunisians, for instance, feel their living-standards have worsened, while 80 percent say the economy has deteriorated.

Not able to rely for their wellbeing on political and economic operators, young people have been additionally deprived in recent decades of a crucial support mechanism: that of the family and other traditional social safety networks. Algerian psychiatrist Abdelhak Benouniche believes the self-immolation phenomenon has a lot to do with the predicament of “the individual who no more enjoys the support of the group. Weakening social ties cause the individual to be isolated, marginalized and unable to assume his duties.”

Otherwise normal individuals are brought to the brink of depression and pathological behavior by the traumatizing fallouts of sudden and unpredictable change. “Fragile personalities” can also be easily driven to suicidal behavior. Even if political, social or political factors are involved, some experts insist self-immolation is, at the end of the day, the result of a pathological propensity towards suicide. Adam Lankford, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Alabama, argues that “when citizens lose faith in their leaders, the inherent justice and fairness of the system, and their ability to overcome adversity, they lose hope, and hopelessness is one of the most common psychological causes of suicide.”

Too often, however, seeking psychological support is not the priority of unemployed and frustrated youth in situations of crises. At times, it is not even the priority of the overwhelmed medical and social workers.

But for Maghrebi societies at large, self-immolation is not a problem that can be ignored. It is symptomatic of a deeper problem; that of the depreciation of the value of life. The future of the Maghreb depends upon the awareness of its younger people that there are better options than setting themselves afire, braving death aboard rickety boats across the Mediterranean, or - worse still - giving up everything to join the ranks of jihadists abroad. North Africa’s youth budge should not become a despair bulge.


Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country's international image. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. A recipient of the U.S. Foreign Service Distinguished Visiting Lecturer Award, he was also a Washington DC press correspondent and Fulbright Research Scholar at Georgetown University. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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