Comparing explanations of the Arab uprisings  

By David Siddhartha Patel, Brandeis University

* This memo was prepared for “The Arab Uprisings Explained” workshop, October 2-3, 2014. 

In 2010, an unemployed Tunisian fruit vendor, harassed and humiliated by local officials, went to his town’s municipal office to complain. After being denied a meeting with the mayor, he returned with a can of gasoline and set himself on fire. His death triggered no protests; he did not become a national symbol who embodied others’ grievances. Today, few outside of his hometown of Monastir remember Abdesselem Trimech’s March 3 self-immolation.

Almost every account of the Arab uprisings contains some variation of the following sentence: “The Arab uprisings began with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed Tunisian street vendor, on December 17, 2010 in Sidi Bouzid.” Bouazizi was the third Tunisian to set himself on fire in 2010.[1] Yet, almost no one mentions the earlier self-immolations or asks why Bouazizi’s triggered massive protests when earlier ones had not.[2] Comparing these three instances might help us to identify which factors were more or less important for a local event to become a national one.

Trimech’s and Bouazizi’s backgrounds and the circumstances of their deaths are remarkably similar, but they differ in one notable respect. Trimech was from Monastir, a major tourist resort along the coast; Sidi Bouzid is in the economically and culturally marginalized hinterland. In existing accounts of the Tunisian uprising, scholars have emphasized the importance of the hinterland’s relative economic underdevelopment, lack of public services, and high unemployment. Silvia Marsans-Sakly also notes that coastal city dwellers mocked accents from the interior; they were socially marginalized within Tunisia as well. But, the third case suggests that regional context alone is not a sufficient cause. Chams Eddine Heni lived in the impoverished hinterland town of Metlaoui, approximately 87 miles southwest from the similarly-sized Sidi Bouzid, and his self-immolation on November 20, less a month before Bouazizi’s, did not trigger protests. What was different?

Bystanders recorded Bouazizi’s self-immolation with cell phones, and videos and pictures of it circulated on Facebook and blogs. Heni’s suicide does not appear to have been recorded. The ability of Tunisians to empathize with Bouazizi’s plight appears to have been aided by the fact that they could see images – and knew that others could see images – of what that situation drove him to do. Hearing about it was not enough.[3] The rest of the narrative is well known: Bouazizi’s family protested outside the municipality building, local members of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) staged demonstrations in small towns and framed Bouazizi as a victim of the regime, and Al Jazeera learned about the early protests from the web and covered them when Tunisian stations were not.[4]

This simple reexamination and comparison of the first step in the narrative of the Arab uprisings yields a few insights. It suggests that some key features were not sufficient for the local act to become a national one. This led me to reassess the power of emotions – especially those triggered by visual images – in mobilizing protest. Why did copycat self-immolations in other Arab countries not trigger similar protests, especially when citizens knew it worked in Tunisia? Were any of those events recorded and shared? The comparison also suggests many of the studies on transnational diffusion in the Arab uprisings – including my own work – might have benefitted by looking at tactics or slogans that did not successfully spread. For example, the slogan ash-shab yurid isqat al-nidham (the people want the fall of the regime) spread rapidly from country to country. But, it seems that the earlier Tunisian slogan of shugul, huriyya, karama wataniyya (work, freedom, national dignity)did nottransfer as easily. Why?

There is much still to be learned about the Arab uprisings, including how they spread and why. Now that an initial wave of largely descriptive accounts has been published, the way forward is to go back and conduct rigorous comparisons that allow variables – on both the right and left hand sides – to be considered. Al Jazeera broadcasts aided the transnational diffusion of what social movement scholars would call repertoires of contention. How did publics in other countries converge on a set of slogans and tactics? Future research might examine broadcasts of Al Jazeera from this period to see which slogans and tactics were shown and which were not, perhaps linking them to the subsequent spread of tweets and Facebook posts. Do we remember Khalid Said’s name because images of his disfigured corpse went viral while those of similar victims of regime brutalities in other countries did not? What role did visual images play in making the city of Daraa, its teenagers, and the Omari Mosque the story of the beginning of the Syrian uprising instead of other stories of how the uprising began? Who can push a story in a way to make it the story, the narrative behind which mobilization occurs?

The Arab Spring might be over, but the analysis of what happened and why is only beginning.

David Siddhartha Patel is a junior research fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University.


[1] Tunisians in previous years had also used self-immolation to protest government decisions. Muhammd Gharsallah of Kairouan set himself on fire in front of the presidential palace in Carthage in 2007, reportedly after being denied a loan to purchase almond trees.

[2] Bassam Haddad and Jillian Schwedler mention that two earlier self-immolations in Tunisia “sparked nothing” (Haddad, Bassam, and Jillian Schwedler. 2013. “Editors’ Introduction to Teaching about the Middle East Since the Arab Uprisings,” PS: Political Science & Politics 46, 2: 211-216, p. 212). Silvia Marsans-Sakly is the only scholar I know of who goes into detail on the earlier cases (Marsans-Sakley, Silvia. 2012. “The Tunisian Revolution: Making and Meaning of an Event,” EurOrient 38:185-200). In general, scholars have been more likely to compare Bouazizi’s action with those of Buddhist monks’ in South Vietnam in 1963 or Jan Palach’s self-immolation in Prague in 1969. Like Bouazizi, those examples also inspired others to emulate their act.

[3] We cannot know if the fact that Bouazizi survived for 18 days in the hospital was also important; the images of Ben Ali visiting the bandaged Bouazizi spread widely.

[4] International Crisis Group. 2011. “Popular Protests in North Africa and the Middle East (IV): Tunisia’s Way.” Middle East/North Africa Report Number 106. 28 April.

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