Why Is the Arab Spring So Obsessed With Martyrs?

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Repressive political cultures and other factors make martyrdom central to the movements there, but they might not be so unique.

Hayoun Jan25 Bouazizi P.jpg

Bessema Bouazizi, half-sister of Mohamed Bouazizi, holds a poster of her brother at her home in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid / Reuters

During the 11 days of agony and ecstasy between Ben Ali's flight from Tunis on January 14, 2011, and the beginning of the Tahrir Square protests on January 25, I remember discussing Mohamed Bouazizi with my coworkers at the Beijing bureau of a Chinese newspaper. As one of a few part-Tunisians in China, I was treated as a sort of spokesman for a country I have actually never seen.

There was no way to convey, in the span of a lunch break, the 23 years of systematic humiliation and economic injustice that my grandmother's relatives experienced under Ben Ali. So I described the many popular images of the martyr, Mohammed Bouazizi, who in lighting himself on fire had thrown his body on the gears of the regime and started the revolution that I had seen in news broadcasts, plastered on revolutionary pickets across Tunis.

The images of his martyrdom had become the images of Tunisia's revolution. The proud face, his fruit cart, his body consumed in flames, Ben Ali hovering at his bedside in a sad moment that illustrated the opportunism and desperation of a regime in decline.

A few days later, I had to make another explanation, present another before-and-after picture of a young North African man who died, albeit unknowingly, for a cause.

Plastered across Tahrir on posters and printouts was the face of Egyptian youth activist Khaled Said alongside a photo of his head after police had literally shattered it against the marble of his own apartment building. The before-and-after helped wake up enough Egyptians to oust President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years of his silencing so many other pro-democracy movements.

"In Egypt, there were a lot of people carrying around pictures of Khaled Said," said Mosa'ab Elshamy, a 21-year-old Cairene photo blogger who protested in Tahrir during the 18 days that ousted Mubarak, "[Egyptians] remembered him throughout the 18 days. The fact that so many went right ahead to Said's family house right after Mubarak stepped down to chant for him and celebrate with his mother was a very obvious gesture."

The likenesses of Mohamed Bouazizi and Khaled Said are everywhere during the revolutionary anniversaries in Tunisia and Egypt, on posters, stamps, plaques, and statues. But, with so many others who gave their lives, it's easy to wonder why these two men earn such special acclaim. Some 3,500 Tunisian and 30,000 Egyptian political dissidents were imprisoned before the revolutions early last year, and many people have been killed during protests against both regimes. Bouazizi and Said didn't even knowingly die for the cause of government accountability or democracy.

"The revolution needed the spark," explained Radwan Masmoudi, the Tunisian-born president of the D.C.-based Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, just before his first flight to post-revolutionary Tunisia, "Martyrs are something that attracts your attention."

Masmoudi believes it was precisely because Bouazizi wasn't anyone special that his image struck a chord with the Tunisian public.

"Things had already reached a boiling point, and the timing was such that hundreds of people who had had enough with the regime said, 'This could have been me. This is a young, educated Tunisian who could have been me," he said.

Elshamy suggested the same of Said, Bouazizi's Egyptian counterpart.

"Khaled Said's case was unique, because he was your regular, young, middle-class man, who lived his life normally and wasn't too involved in politics," Elshamy said, "And when he died, it became certain that you don't have to be an opposition figure or in the Muslim Brotherhood to get killed by the Ministry of the Interior."

"This made him an icon. It started a flame within millions of young men, who felt the danger that they may have had the same fate if they didn't do something."

And then came Google executive Wael Ghonim's famous Facebook page We Are All Khaled Said, now credited with orchestrating much of the revolution that took down a three-decade dictatorship in 18 days. The email address associated with the Arabic and English versions of the page is elshaheeed@gmail.com, the romanization of the Arabic word for 'the martyr.'

Why was it that so much of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions hinged on martyrdom? The U.S.-born international Occupy movement is not only without a Khaled Said or Mohamed Bouazizi, but is ostensibly leaderless -- without any faces at all.

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Massoud Hayoun is a digital-news producer for Al Jazeera America.

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