Grieving Mohamed Bouazizi

by zunguzungu

When a Tunisian fruit-seller named Mohamed Boazizi doused himself with gasoline a year ago and lit a match, and after lingering in the hospital for many agonizing days, finally succumbed to the injuries he sustained, his death was said to have both inaugurated and inspired the “Arab Spring.”

As Rami Khoury has noted, the “Arab Spring” is largely a Western term; within the region it describes, the uprising is more simply and directly called the “revolution” or “uprising” (thawra, intifada in Arabic), or the “awakening” or “renaissance” (sahwa, nahda). Speaking only the Arabic that has made the safari into Kiswahili, I have no way of knowing whether this is true. But it makes sense that we in the West would look at the Middle East and North Africa and understand what is happening through our own familiar political lexicon. So it’s worth being conscientious in recognizing what that lexicon presumes.

The term “Arab Spring,” for example, was first used by conservative American commentators in 2005 to interpret a variety of (ultimately short-lived) democratic developments in the Middle East as vindicating George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda.” This was the neoconservative faith that toppling a dictator Saddam Hussein would open the floodgates to democracy: as Charles Krauthammer put it – in one of the half-dozen 2005 columns in which he used the term in this way – “History has begun to speak, and it says that America made the right decision to invade Iraq.” And at the risk of oversimplifying the neoconservative ideology at issue, the argument both implicit and explicit in this deployment of military force in service of democracy was that the killing of a despot – the shock and awe toppling of Saddam Hussein – would not only be the precondition for the emergence of an Arab demos, but would bring it about as cleanly and directly as spring follows winter. Freedom through military force. And as always, when a neocon looks to History, what they really mean is the mythology of the Cold War, and so, if we look farther back, the use of “Spring” in this sense is almost certainly derived from the “Prague Spring” of 1968, the attempt at political liberalization and democratization in Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia, which ended when the Soviet Union crushed the reforms by force. But even before that was the 1848 “Springtime of Nations” – in German and French, the “Völkerfrühling and “Printemps des Peuples” – a pan-European series of revolutionary uprisings that also almost uniformly resulted in counter-revolutionary repression, perhaps most famously in the return to power of a Bonaparte in France.

What these historical precedents have in common, in other words, is precisely not History’s ineluctable march towards freedom — in time to the beat of a military drum — but their failure, the repression or subversion of popular uprising and democratization by military force. And so, what connects the Springtime of Nations to the Prague Spring to the neocon Arab Spring was the fact that they were announced as inevitable, by the cheerful logic of the metaphor, and then didn’t come. Against the Cold War Neo-Conservative faith in Freedom through Military Strength, history tells us a different story through this series of democratic springs, each of which ended with their violent repression. It’s certainly reasonable to fear that this is what is happening in Egypt, now, and elsewhere in the “Arab World,” so called. In Egypt, is SCAF just Mubarakism without Mubarak? The ministry of interior has not been disbanded.

What, then, of Mohamed Bouazizi? What of his suicide? I make this point because he didn’t light a match and spark a revolution in any simple way (a metaphor we will hear over and over again). He didn’t, because that revolution has not yet come, is still being fought for, is still being oppressed by police, soldiers, torturers, and politicians. And so we miss the historical significance of his death if we credit it with being handmaiden of a history that is still very much in question. As Egyptian novelist Sonollah Ibrahim has insisted of what happened in Tahrir Square:

“It certainly was not a revolution. A revolution has a program and goal—a complete change of reality or the removal of one class by another. What happened was a popular uprising against a standing regime. Its primary demand was “regime change,” though it was not clear what that was supposed to mean, except in the sense of removing the most prominent symbols of the old regime.”

Clearing away the old regime might be the precondition for the emergence of something else, but the latter doesn’t follow from the former as simply as spring from winter, nor does the passage of time do anything more revolutionary, necessarily, than allow the forces of oppression the opportunity to re-brand and re-arm themselves. “Creative destruction” is a capitalist ideology turned neoconservative political praxis, but it’s still a faith, and one that has a remarkably poor track record in fostering democracy.

What is remarkable about Mohamed Bouazizi’s death, I want to suggest, is the thing that makes it so very different from the many suicides in the world that result from systemic injustice just as grave and deadly and silently violent, but which most of us almost never hear about. Bouazizi’s long hospitalization and death somehow translated into concrete political action, somehow became an event that could not be ignored. If his was the speech of a “subaltern” – Gramsci’s word for the figure whose voice is structurally written out of dominant political narratives – then what is remarkable is the extent to which his self-immolation was heard. His death was not pathologized or explained or passed over in silence. Instead, it has been been read and re-written as violence, first as a sacrifice requiring reverence and then as a violence done to him, requiring reaction. The thousands who marched at his funeral, for example, were reported to have chanted “Farewell, Mohammed, we will avenge you. We weep for you today, we will make those who caused your death weep.” And then they did.

As Ebrahim Moosa reminds us, someone like Mohamed Bouazizi does not normally get to be a sacrificial victim; as “bare life” he was the sort of person who could normally be killed with impunity or die without significance. And so, it is precisely the non-event of bare life’s extinction that registers the normality of that subject’s exclusion from political life.

What accounts for the difference? How did the routine violence of economic exploitation and political exclusion come to register as the kind of subjective violence it has? How did his death come to register as grievable? Most importantly, how did it come to be retroactively read as a violence done to him, and by a Tunisian state to whose illegitimacy that it, in turn, testifies and bears witness? These are not easy questions, and I wouldn’t pretend to have more than the beginnings of an answer. But these are the important questions, not election results and projections. How did Mohamed Bouazizi’s life come to have value? How did it become something we could grieve?

Rather than the spectacle with which we are so tiresomely familiar — the figure of the Islamist suicide bomber, whose status as “terrorist” testifies first to the illegitimacy of the act and then to the legitimacy of the targeted regime — Boazizi’s act somehow came to mean precisely the reverse, showing us the illegitimacy of the Tunisian state which killed him, as it was grieved by chanting crowds in the streets. And we see something similar, everywhere that people stand up and demand that no, this life has value, this sacrifice has meaning. Sentimentality can be a trap; thinking that sorrow is a substitute for political action has a long history of liberal complicity in racialized injustice, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin onward. But our politics can also change as we learn to grieve, as we learn to declare that such deaths aren’t normal, and we learn to find a loss in those whose deaths would normally mean nothing to us. That’s when the normal becomes subject to change. In this sense, as Moosa puts it, the “jubilation, conversations, speeches, greetings, protests, banners, deaths, wounds, and other expressions” of grief and rage and solidarity all collectively form an aesthetics of politics, a new way of sensing what is possible and of feeling what is wrong. And while the outcome of all of these political struggles are unclear—if the endpoint of the Arab Spring is far from certain—then as he puts it, “there is one certainty: the people have changed the order of the sensible.”