Looking at suicide as a protest form in Tunisia

December and January in Tunisia are undisputed months of “revolutions,” small and large.
Sunday 06/01/2019
A citizen and soldiers carry a man who attempted to set himself ablaze in a suicide protest outside the local government office in Kasserine.      (Reuters)
Bouazizi effect? A citizen and soldiers carry a man who attempted to set himself ablaze in a suicide protest outside the local government office in Kasserine. (Reuters)

TUNIS - “I will douse myself with gasoline,” yelled the angry youth. This phrase has become a common threat in Tunisia. It is a clear warning that the person uttering it may someday set fire to himself. In recent years, threatening or attempting self-immolation, either individually or collectively, has become a social phenomenon in Tunisia.

Most of the unemployed in Tunisia are young people, very often university graduates. Before committing suicide in late December, TV reporter Abderrazak Zorgui appeared on Facebook in a video clip in which he looked “desperate” while holding a bottle of gasoline, clearly signalling his intention to commit suicide.

Preliminary findings of the police investigation said Zorgui could have committed suicide or burned himself to death with the help of other individuals. His case has become a public opinion issue in Tunisia.

The incident brought back memories of another self-immolation eight years ago. On December 17, 2010, vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire and died. He was living in desperate conditions in Sidi Bouzid in southern Tunisia. His death sparked protests all over the country, which prompted a harsh reprisal by security forces. The spread of popular unrest eventually forced Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country.

Since the uprising, the number of suicides by self-immolation has risen in Tunisia, a “Bouazizi effect,” specialists said.

If Bouazizi’s suicide shocked Tunisian society and the world, the phenomenon goes back to at least “more than a decade ago,” Tunisian psychiatrist Dr Fatma Charfi said. Charfi heads a suicide-prevention programme set up by the Tunisian Ministry of Public Health in 2015.

Suicide rates in Tunisia are not much higher than in many other countries but Charfi said there is a danger in its “continuous” rise. “When we compare forensic data from the decade between 1990 and 2000 with the data from after 2010, we see this rise,” she said.

Dr Mehdi Ben Khelil, who practises medicine at the Charles Nicolle Hospital in Tunis, co-wrote a study on the effects of the revolution on suicide rates in Tunisia. He said suicides in Tunisia have gone up since 2011 due to difficulties encountered during the “period of political transition” in the country and the effect of the “macroeconomic crisis on individuals.”

December and January in Tunisia are undisputed months of “revolutions,” small and large. Confrontations between the successive governments and the disadvantaged classes took place during these two months. On January 15, 1978, Tunisian government forces clashed with strikers from the Tunisian General Labour Union. Scores of people were reportedly killed. In January 1984, the so-called bread riots took place. Almost 30 years later, popular uprisings brought down the Ben Ali regime in January 2011.

There are fears this January could witness violent upheaval. A general public service strike has been called for January 17 if the government and the unions do not reach a settlement.

During the first six months of 2018, the Tunisian Forum on Social and Economic Rights (FTDES) recorded 281 suicide cases, 205 by males and 76 by females. Forty-five victims were under 15 years of age; 40 between 16-25, 141 between 26-35, 32 between 36-45, 16 between 46-60 and seven were over the age of 60.

By comparison, in 2017 there were 462 reports of attempted suicides, including 34 under the age of 15 years. In 2016, the number of reported suicides totalled 583 cases, 40 of which were children.

In 2015, in a population of about 11 million Tunisians, 365 people committed suicide. That’s 3.27 suicides per 100,000 people. About half of the suicide victims were people aged 30-39.

Abdessattar Sahbani, from the FTDES, said there is a link between the deteriorating economic and social climate in post-revolution Tunisia and the suicides of people living in tough conditions. “Of course, suicide is linked to socioeconomic problems and results from loss of hope,” he said.

Suicide in Tunisia is no longer a personal and individual decision. It has become a type of group action. Sahbani said many of the cases of suicide or attempted suicide recorded last year “were threats of group suicides or attempted group suicides.”

Studies of the phenomenon of suicide generally identify three factors encouraging suicidal behaviour in individuals: social, psychological and genetic.

Tunisian sociologist Rahma Ben Slimane said suicide was a social phenomenon linked to several variables. The increase in suicide rates is due to individuals’ inability to bear quick changes at the social, economic and political levels or to live in what is known in social psychology as a “risk-laden society” that renders an individual unable to absorb the accelerated events occurring around him or her.

Ben Slimane added that the spread of suicide among young people can be explained by the “theory of relative deprivation.”

After the January 2011 uprising, young people’s expectations rose, especially in the social and professional domains, but those hopes crashed down when it became clear that the state was unable to fulfil them.

The resulting disappointment can generate intense internal conflicts that reveal themselves in a variety of manifestations, such as violent protests or suicides as a form of protest. Remedying this disappointment does not seem an easy task.