Clark McCauley Ph.D.



Humiliation and martyrdom in the Jasmine Revolution

Humiliation can start a revolution.

Posted Apr 03, 2011

Mohamedd Bouazizi (March 29, 1984 - January 4, 2011) was a Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire on December 17, 2010 in protest against harassment by municipal authorities. His self-immolation became the catalyst for demonstrations and riots against political authorities throughout Tunisia. When he died in hospital, mobilization against the government intensified and President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali decamped for Saudi Arabia on January 14, 2011, after 23 years in power.

The success of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia sparked anti-government protests like a string of firecrackers going off in Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Jordan, Libya. Here we raise the question, what is the psychology of martyrdom that initiated political protest from Tunisia to (so far) six additional Arab countries?

An unlikely martyr

Bouazizi was born in the rural Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid. When his father, a construction worker, died of a heart attack when Bouazizi was three, his mother married Bouazizi's uncle. Poor health kept his uncle from working regularly and from age ten Bouazizi was working various jobs; in his teens he quit school to work full-time to support his family, including five siblings. His job was selling produce on the streets of Sidi Bouzid. From weekly earnings of about $150 a week he was able to pay for one of his sisters to attend university and was locally popular as a man who would give fruit and vegetables to families poorer than his own.

Local report has it that Bouazizi was, like other street vendors, harassed often by local police looking for bribes. Sometimes they confiscated his produce for not having a vendor's license, although after his death officials confirmed that no license was required to sell from a cart. On December 17, 2010, he began work at 8am and around 1030am was stopped by a 45-year-old female municipal official, Fadya Hamdi, and two male aides. The altercation that followed has had various descriptions, but the following aspects seem clear. Hamdi became angry and she and her aides confiscated Bouazizi's produce and beat him. His family claims that he was publicly humiliated when an older woman slapped him and spat at him.

Angered by the way he had been treated, Bouazizi went to the office of the local equivalent of ‘mayor' to complain. The mayor wouldn't see him. Bouazizi threatened that he would burn himself if the mayor wouldn't see him; the mayor still refused. Less than an hour after his run-in with Hamdi, Bouazizi doused himself with petrol and set himself afire in front of the municipal building. Eighteen days later, after being taken to a number of hospitals of ascending quality as his case became more celebrated, he died in the Ben Arous Burn and Trauma Centre. Thousands of people participated in the funeral procession, many chanting promises of revenge.

Bouazizi is today considered a martyr, not only in Tunisia but in other Arab countries as well. The mayor of Paris has promised to name a street after him. How he could be seen as a martyr is not so obvious.

What does it take to be a martyr?

A martyr is someone who suffers or dies for a cause. The elements of moral choice are part of the construction of a martyr: the individual must be seen as having made a choice under circumstances where he could have done otherwise, a choice directed by a right intention.

There is no trouble seeing Bouazizi as having made a free choice. There was no element of coercion in his purchase of gasoline or application of a match. There is no hint of abnormality in his background, no sign of psychopathology, and in particular no sign of depression that usually accompanies suicide. Rather he was a well-known and popular young man, the kind of outgoing personality who can sell from a pushcart, the breadwinner for a family of eight for seventeen years, and a generous soul who would help families poorer than his own.

But did he have a right intention? If he could have foreseen his act as the origin of a successful revolution against an abusive government, he would certainly be credited with right intention. There is no indication that he had this kind of foresight. Indeed there had been previous self-immolations in Tunisa that received little media attention and sparked nothing.

"Mohamed Bouazizi was not the first Tunisian to set himself alight in an act of public protest. Abdesslem Trimech, to name one of many cases that occurred without any significant media attention, set himself ablaze in the town of Monastir on March 3 [2010] after facing bureaucratic hindrance in his own work as a street vendor." (

Also counting against Bouazizi's right intention are the well-known strictures against suicide in Islam, strictures based directly on the Koran. Muslims undertaking suicide attacks are careful to represent themselves as warriors who die in attacking a more powerful enemy, but Bouazizi did not attack anyone except himself. From a religious point of view, his self-immolation should have been seen as suicide in contravention of the Koran.

Humiliation and its antidote

In an interview with Reuters, his sister Leila is quoted as follows: "What kind of repression do you imagine it takes for a young man to do this? A man who has to feed his family by buying goods on credit when they fine him ... and take his goods. In Sidi Bouzid, those with no connections and no money for bribes are humiliated and insulted and not allowed to live." (

His family claims that his humiliation was multiplied by the fact that it was a woman who slapped him. Humiliation figures prominently in descriptions of his life and that of other street vendors. His intention appears to have been to protest his humiliation and to regain his honor.

Psychologists and lay people agree that humiliation is an enforced lowering or abasement: an asymmetric conflict in which a much stronger perpetrator insults a much weaker victim. In an unpublished analysis I argue that humiliation is not a separate emotion but a corrosive combination of two better know emotions: anger and shame. Anger is the emotion associated with an appraisal of insult, and the syndrome of anger includes negative beliefs and feelings about the perpetrator and impulses for revenge. Shame is the emotion associated with a global indictment of the self for failing to live up to values, and the syndrome of shame includes feeling smaller, exposed and dishonored and wishing to sink into the ground.

Aristotle notes that failure to respond to insult is ignoble, and suppression of anger in the face of superior power is a source of shame. Then there is anger at being made to experience shame. Then there is more shame about suppressing anger. It is the positive feedback loop producing a rising spiral of anger and shame that makes this combination what Evelin Lindner has called "the nuclear bomb of the emotions." (

As his humiliation was great and public, Bouazizi's reaction was great and public. By setting himself afire he could shame the ‘mayor' and those who harassed him. Public reaction in Tunisia indicates that, in this country at least, reclaiming honor is indeed a right motivation--more right than Islam's strictures against suicide. Bouazizi became famous as a martyr in the cause of honor: his own honor, the honor of every Tunisian street vendor, the honor of every Tunisian humiliated and victimized by petty officials.

This case leads to an interesting conclusion: martyrdom is the opposite of humiliation and sometimes can be humiliation's antidote--an antidote powerful enough to spark a revolution.