Among the rocky scrub and brush of the Atlas Mountains, between the bustling limits of Fes and Meknes, lies the small city of Sebaa Ayoune, surrounded by bucolic farms and rivers, the likes of which feed and fuel the Meknès-Tafilalet region of Morocco.
Monday in Sebaa Ayoune started as an ordinary workday, with townspeople going to shops and offices. But for Abdelkabir al-Atawi, the fine summer day was a nightmare. After ages of jumping through administrative hoops in an attempt to get proper documentation, Atawi was not able to obtain the materials he would need to get his sick wife affordable health care at the local hospital.
The father of five was from a different region, Ouarzazate, and so had to get a residency permit in order to get his wife healthcare in Meknès-Tafilalet at a lower price. He could not afford the treatment at the regular price because he had been out of work and was virtually at the end of his savings.
Faced with few options, and inundated with feelings of despair and impotence, Atawi chose to take his own life. But not only did this man commit suicide; he killed himself through self-immolation, taking what could have been the isolated act of a desperate man to a political action connecting him with years of anti-government dissidents.
Political self-immolation was first brought to the attention of the international community in 1963, when a Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc set himself on fire in a busy street in Ho Chi Minh City to protest the Catholic South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem’s repressive policies towards Buddhists. Six years later, in 1969, Czech student Jan Palach self-immolated in Prague as a symbolic act against the invasion of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. The suicides of Quang Duc and Palach led to self-immolation as an infrequent yet highly public act of protest throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
The Arab Spring was, in many ways, catalyzed by a self-immolation. In January 2011, in the Tunisian costal town of Ben Arous, a young fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi was humiliated by local police forces, his wares confiscated. Out of both despair and protest, he set himself on fire. This was the symbolic act that led to widespread Tunisian revolts, which in turn led to the overthrow of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and protests in much of the rest of the Arab world, including Morocco.
Despite having an ostensibly popular monarch in King Mohammed, the Moroccan protests continued with strength for over a year, and remained simmering under the surface after that. The country’s high wage gap, low literacy rate, corruption, and poor health care encouraged many to take to the streets. This led to Mohammed promising to undertake comprehensive constitutional reforms, but many protesters felt these promises were insufficient.
In the Moroccan protests, self-immolation has been a relatively popular technique of resistance, especially among unemployed and underemployed secondary and tertiary school graduates. Such actions have continued since 2012, despite the Moroccan central government’s slow steps towards reform.
By Laura Gates
Source: Agence France Presse, The Daily Telegraph, Time, BBC, Al Jazeera