Apparently separate and relatively peaceful revolutions have now toppled dictatorial regimes in two North African states. What provoked these events?  While there are a wide range of political and economic factors as well as organizations that had been building for years, the proximate causes that triggered the call for protests were quite similar.

A cartoon by Carlos Latuff depicting the late
Khaled Said’s revenge on President Hosni Mubarak

The trigger for both events can be traced to two individuals. The outrage that started the January 25th revolution in Egypt was the brutal death of a 28 year old Alexandrian businessman, Khaled Said on the 6th of June last year; and the self-immolation of the 26 year old Mohammed Bouazizi in December started the Sidi Bouzid revolution in Tunisia.

The narratives of both men revolve around difficulties at the hands of arrogant and corrupt police officers. In the case of Khaled Said, he refused to show his identification to police in a cafe as they did not have the right to make such a demand and he knew it was only a ruse to get a bribe. (Anyone who has lived in Cairo long enough has encountered this scenario). The police responded to Said’s defiance by hauling him out of the cafe, and as he pleaded for his life, the police beat him to death over the course of twenty minutes. The Egyptian government attempted to explain the death of Khaled Said by discrediting his reputation and claiming that he died of asphyxiation from trying to swallow a bag of marijuana. The circulation of graphic photos of Said’s dead body made it plainly evident that he had died in the most horrible manner. It should not be surprising then that the protests which erupted under the banner “We are all Khaled Said” occurred on January 25th which was declared National Police Day in Egypt in 2009.

In Tunisia, Bouazizi had his only means of supporting a family of eight, an illegal fruit cart, seized by the police, who also apparently insulted him. Unable to bribe the police or gain an audience from a local magistrate and upset at the fine he had to pay to recover his fruit cart, the young man set himself on fire in protest on December 17th and died on January 4th.

While these events would not have garnered the same level of attention as quickly without social media and satellite television and the protests would not have been as successful without shrewd street-level organizing as well as serious miscalculations about the political economy of violence by riot police, what interests me is why these two particular deaths, among hundreds of citizens in both countries who had been killed/tortured by regime thugs over the years or who killed themselves, created such waves of sympathy and outrage which could be mobilized by protest organizers.

I would argue that what these two exemplified were educated individuals reduced to bare life or to the essence of humanity. They were both young men who could not be deemed a security threat or even politically active; they could only be seen as victims by their countrymen. In fact they came to stand in for the frustrated economic hopes of a new generation living under abusive, Western backed, authoritarian regimes.  Said apparently had studied computer programming in the US. And although Bouazizi did not have a college degree (or even a high school degree), several newspapers initially reported that he was a college graduate. As in any insurrection, the rumors were more important than the truth in galvanizing popular support.

The originally South Asian/Southeast Asian idiom of political protest utilized by Bouazizi was apparently unprecedented in Tunisia, but the symbolic message was simple enough to be communicated almost instantly. In fact, the immolation in Tunisia led to several other immolations in the region, including in Egypt. Of course, in Egypt, once the Tunisian protests began to gather momentum, it was possible to revive the outrage around the death of Khaled Said to rally protesters for police reform. The Egyptian man who immolated himself, Ahmed Hashem el-Sayed, was an unemployed construction worker; his suffering garnered sympathy but I don’t think it made the same connection with young, educated, Egyptian elites as the previously dormant case of Khaled Said.

The reduction of (supposedly) elite individuals to the status of bare life, allowed them to become the common currency or symbol of the utter hopelessness of the political and economic situation felt by many young educated Arab men and women whose prospects for social mobility and even marriage have diminished with the global economic crisis. The transformation from elite individual to a victimized humanity also helped to bridge class divides and revive a sense of nationalism in otherwise highly unequal, class stratified societies.

What we are seeing in these social movements, to paraphrase the argument of Faisal Devji, is the desire of the masses to give agency to humanity, to move from being objects of the state to subjects.  

Share