The consequences of desperation: self-immolation in Tunisia

March 12 was a regular Tuesday morning in the Tunisian capital. Employees were on their way to work and the sun was shining on Avenue Habib Bourghuiba. Yet two events were about to happen that would exemplify the struggle for the soul of Tunisia’s revolution. The question surrounding Tunisia’s “dignity revolution” is: Which dignity should take priority, freedom of expression or a job?

In front of the opera house, a well-dressed crowd gathered, sporting trendy sunglasses. They were there to protest against the arrest of their friend, actress Sabrina Klibi, who had been taken at 4 a.m. the previous morning by security services following her participation in a video called “The police are dogs,” which criticizes violence by the police.

They had gathered in favor of freedom of expression, something which many secular Tunisians feel has suffered since the initial torrent of opinions following the revolution. However, suddenly, the reason why the revolution broke out in the first place manifested itself again in front of their eyes.

Muttering to himself, a man began dousing himself in gasoline. “This is Tunisia, this is unemployment!” he shouted as he went up in flames, echoing the actions of Mohamed Bouazizi which started the uprising in December 2010. But this was not Sidi Bouzid or some other provincial town, where the 150 other self-immolations since the fall of Ben Ali have taken place. This was the heart of the capital.

These two simultaneous incidents illustrate the shift within Tunisia since the start of the revolution. Initially a social movement, with a call for dignity and bread, the focus has now shifted from economic to rights issues and a battle for the role of religion in the Tunisia of tomorrow. The constitutional assembly has been working for two years, but has failed to pass any meaningful economic legislation. Instead, it bickers over how many times the word Islamic will be mentioned in the introduction to the document.

Indeed, it is the role of religion which has secular Tunisians continuously worried. In the capital, demonstrations for freedom of expression are rife. These range from spontaneous flash mobs dancing to promote citizenship organized by the Art Solution collective to performances of the Harlem Shake in front of ministeries, and indeed all across the country.

But the self-immolation, on the eve of a new government being sworn in, highlighted that the economic situation in the country has not changed. For many, it has gotten worse, as businesses are relocated and tourists vacation elsewhere.

The tussle between freedom of expression and the meeting of basic needs such as employment us pushing some to say enough is enough. Those most affected by the current situation, the youth, have been vocal during protests for freedom of expression, but largely absent from the political process which holds the power over their future economic situation.

How do we pray for those who are desperate in an unstable situation where the future is uncertain? Oh that God would hear the cries of the people for release and come and visit them in a new way in these days.

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