It doesn’t take as long as you might think to burn yourself alive. Shock and asphyxiation begin to set in almost immediately. Third-degree burns scorch your nerve endings. Soon after, your body shuts down.
But as 39-year-old Husseini Kalai will tell you, not everyone who sets himself on fire dies.
“The only thing worse than death is being alive when you want to be dead,” he says. Husseini’s hands are now permanently clenched fists, so tight he can hardly use them. His face is a charred patchwork of scars, his ears barely more than tiny disfigured lobes. “Especially when nothing has changed…especially when the country is still sleeping.”
It was nearly five years ago, shortly after 24-year-old street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in Tunisia and ignited what would become known as the Arab Spring, that Husseini, then 34, doused himself in gasoline in front of a police-officer who had been harassing him in his hometown of Kasserine. He struck a match and woke up seven months later in the hospital.
At the onset of the uprising, self-immolation became the modus operandi for anguished and hopeless youth hoping to demonstrate just as much as self-destruct. Around Kasserine, a hub of dissent well before the country’s protests reverberated across the region, Husseini is known as the “real Bouazizi,” whose role many Tunisians say was overhyped by Western media. Husseini never received the same international attention, but his immolation on January 7, 2011 sparked pivotal protests in Kasserine. A week later, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced to flee Tunisia after 23 years in power.
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Five years later, now covered in burn scars, Husseini can’t sleep without seeing blades of fires. He doesn’t own a mirror. When he walks down the street, people stare and point. Children often scream. The braver approach him to offer an awkward gratitude—or to ask for selfies from the man “who got Ben Ali out,” as some call him.
Yet Husseini feels no pride. He says Tunisia gained nothing from his and other protesters self-destructive defiance. He says he would take it all back if he could. “I was naïve, I guess,” Husseini muses, walking the empty halls of a rehabilitation center where he lives outside Tunis. “I was naïve to think that I or any one person can make a dent or change a tradition of injustice.”
But what’s even more painful than realizing he has lost himself and a country’s fight for dignity is the reality that his younger brother, Saber, has followed in his footsteps. Last October, almost five years after the dawn of the Arab Spring, 33-year-old Saber lost his job at a local hospital and began spiraling into a deep depression. On October 15 last year, he took one of his cigarettes and lit himself on fire in his neighborhood’s small park where he and Husseini used to play games when they were little. A gaggle of children playing nearby watched him die.
Almost five years of struggle had left the family with nothing but ashes.
“My sons were revolutionaries. Where did it all go wrong?” asks Husseini’s mother, 64-year-old Zeina Sehee, as she cries in her living room, clenching Saber’s last carton of cigarettes. “You tell me…is this a revolution?”
Tunisia is held up as an Arab Spring success story—perhaps the only success. In 2014, it adopted a new constitution and held parliamentary and presidential elections. A year ago this month, a quartet of Tunisian civil society groups even received the Nobel Peace Prize for the successful mediation between Islamist and secular groups that kept the country’s democratic process on track. Last fall, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the country was “a shining example to those who claim that democracy is not possible in this part of the world.” Stationery stores sell postcards celebrating the revolution, and streets have been named after Bouazizi.
But few Tunisians who took to the streets to protest in 2011 believe that things have really changed. The government—now led by an octogenarian ally of the deposed president Ben Ali—has largely failed to usher in the economic reforms at the heart of Tunisia’s uprising. Red tape, cronyism and corruption still plague the country. A poll released by The International Republican Institute in January 2016 revealed that 83 percent of respondents believe Tunisia is headed in the wrong direction, with concerns regarding the economy at its highest point since the 2011 uprising.
In a rare exercise of democratic maturity, Prime Minister Habib Essid was ousted in late July after overwhelmingly losing a vote of confidence in parliament. Essid’s opponents say he failed to tackle the country’s mounting economic and security problems while in power for a year and a half. Shortly after, new President Beji Caid Essebsi named a technocrat, Youssef Chahed, as prime minister. Opposition parties quickly criticized the appointment, questioning his experience and calling Chahed a mere loyalist of the president, whom he is related by marriage.
“The different governments since the uprising have had difficulties in prioritizing social justice, a key demand of the revolution,” says Laryssa Chomiak, a political scientist and director of the Centre d’Etudes Maghrébines, a research center in Tunis. “Ben Ali’s political project to exclude people from economic opportunities, especially from the country’s interior, is still largely standing.”
The anger burns particularly hot in interior cities like Husseini’s hometown of Kasserine. During Ben Ali’s 23-year rule, Tunisia focused nearly all of its investment projects on the coastal regions, leaving the interior disproportionately underdeveloped. According to the International Monetary Fund, unemployment and poverty rates in the interior are three times that of the coastal areas. What’s more, the country’s youth—the intended beneficiaries of the revolution—face an unemployment rate hovering around 40 percent.The rate is lower even in Egypt where post-uprising conditions are significantly worse than they were under ousted president Hosni Mubarak.
“Youth ask me all the time what they should do,” says Husseini, letting out a nervous laugh in between a perma-cough. “I just tell them to look at me, to not do what I did… I can’t tell them to stay hopeful because I’m not even hopeful.”
Husseini spent most of his youth in the streets, protesting against corruption and meeting with municipal leaders in an effort to effect change. From a young age, he was inspired by the country’s Bread Riots of 1984. Under an IMF-imposed austerity program, bread prices doubled and thousands took to the streets to protest. The government declared a state of emergency and demonstrations were brutally quashed, leaving more than 80 dead.
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“It was a reminder…a warning to us,” Husseini’s mother Zeina recalls. “Speaking out comes at a price.”
Husseini eventually moved to Sousse, a coastal resort city on the Mediterranean Sea, where he worked as a security guard at a hotel and nightclub. Every time he returned home to visit Kasserine, he was reminded of his country’s dark mosaic of desperation and exhaustion. A day before he lit himself on fire, he said a police officer had been harassing him and others, calling them names and going so far as kicking them. When he went to complain to municipal authorities, they ignored him.
“I was just planning to visit my mother that week and maybe go to a protest, but the fuse broke,” says Husseini. “And when it breaks, you can’t go back.”
Two nights before Husseini’s younger brother killed himself, Saber called him to plan a visit to his rehabilitation center in Tunis. For the past five years, Saber had been a diligent caregiver, visiting regularly and helping his older brother bathe. Husseini could sense that his brother was low in spirits, but then again, so was nearly everyone. He never imagined that history would repeat itself. In Arabic, Saber means “patience”—something so many Tunisians had lost since the heady days of the Arab Spring.
“Do you ever think it’s our destiny is to be forgotten?” Saber asked Husseini before he hung up the phone.
“All the time,” Husseini answered.
That would be the last time they’d talk.
Adnan Haji, a leftist parliamentarian known as the “Che Guevera of the south” from the interior city of Gafsa says if conditions don’t improve, another uprising is likely. “There’s still no dignity, the economy is worse and the old guys are still around. Injustice is still prevalent…people won’t wait much longer.”
Last January, protests broke out once again in Kasserine when 28-year-old Ridha Yahyaoui electrocuted himself on top of a power pole near the governor’s office. His name had been removed from a list of potential recruits for coveted public sector jobs. In response to the demonstrations, President Essebsi – the oldest head of state in the Middle East—promised to employ more than 6,000 youth in Kasserine and start construction projects. But young people in Kasserine—and throughout Tunisia—are still waiting.
Human rights stalwarts like Sihem Bensedrine, head of Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission, which is tasked with bringing those who profited under an authoritarian regime to justice, fear that anger will only build among the country’s young. “It’s time to bring change and we’ve reached a plateau,” she says. “Unfortunately, the window is only narrowing. There are a lot of landmines in Tunisia. And if we don’t get rid of them, they’ll explode.”
For Radha Manai, the explosion already happened.
Like Zeina, she sits crying over the death of her 24-year-son in her small one-room home in Gaafour, a hardscrabble town in northern Tunisia. On her daughter’s phone is a video she took of her son Seifeddine at a relative’s wedding two years ago. Tall, thin, and handsome, he break-dances across a blue strobe-lit dance floor to applause from an enthralled crowd that has circled around him.
On June 26, 2015, almost a year after the wedding, the whole country—and most of the world—met her son through another image: Seifeddine walking down a beach with an AK-47, after single-handedly killing 38 in a terrorist attack at a beach resort in Sousse. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack and the president called for a war on terrorism. The government also declared a state of emergency (conferring Tunisian authorities special power to forbid public gatherings and control the press) which it lifted last October, only to reinstate again in November when a suicide attack in downtown Tunis killed 12 members of the presidential guard. It has yet to be lifted. Over the last year, tourism — which accounts for 8 percent of Tunisia’s gross domestic product – has plunged, with the lowest tourist arrivals in decades.
The Tunisian government says that Seifeddine trained with the Islamic State in Libya the year before the attack. His mother and sister claim he was brainwashed, that the brightest engineer in his college class would never do such a thing, would never join such a group. But friends say Seifeddine was easily radicalized – hopeless and defeated by the prospect of finding love or a job in a country where poverty is a near death sentence.
Though Tunisia is faring better than its fellow Arab Spring neighbors, more than 6,000 Tunisians are thought to have traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight as jihadists, more than any other country in the world, despite Tunisia’s small population of 11 million people. Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, the 31-year-old deliveryman who ran over and killed 85 people in Nice, France on July 14, was a native of Tunisia. Such has become the soured legacy of the Arab Spring.
“It’s a tide that’s hard to stop,” says Mohammed Iqbal, a telecommunications worker and founder of an organization that helps Tunisian families whose relatives have left to fight in Syria. In 2013, Iqbal’s own teenage brother was radicalized in a local mosque and soon left to fight alongside ISIS in Syria. He returned after a few weeks, though Iqbal refuses to disclose any details of what happened to his brother in Syria, or why he returned.
Not a day goes by, Iqbal says, that he doesn’t receive a frantic call from a family who wants their son back. But he understands the sense of desperation that drives them. “If I were 10 years younger maybe I’d be in Syria, too,” says Iqbal.
Under Tunisian Presidents Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali, who reigned for 31 and 23 years, respectively, religious education was marginalized in a practice of forced secularization, and tight security controls were placed on mosques. After the fall of the regime, radical religious imams were able to fill the vacuum and recruit disenfranchised youth. It’s in that environment that friends say Seifeddine was radicalized while studying electrical engineering at a technical college in Kairouan, a holy city in Tunisia considered to be a stronghold of ultraconservative Islamists known as Salafis.
When Husseini heard the news of the Sousse attack, a hotel not far from where he once worked, he felt a strange shock of recognition. “In a way, it’s like I opened the door for people like Seifeddine,” he says. “Five years ago, we would have probably stood in the same square, protesting Ben Ali. Now look at where we are.”
Both he and Seifeddine, he says, were drawn to deaths that screamed a purpose greater than themselves. Both wanted a way out of a country they felt failed by – a country where they couldn’t find a place.
Zeina, Husseini’s mother, hesitates to compare her son to an Islamic State militant but soon nods. “You’re both victims of the state,” she says. “You’re sons of desperation.”
At a cafe near Seiffedine’s family home in Gaafour, scores of young men were lazing the day away, all dressed up in knock-off designer jeans and pleather jackets with nowhere to go. Cafes have become a sort of waiting room for Tunisia’s unemployed. In dusty towns like Gaafour with little infrastructure and few public spaces, there’s little else to do.
“It’s scary because you look at someone like Seifeddine and you realize, you’re not so different,” says a 23-year-old college graduate, afraid to disclose his name for fear of being questioned by local officials. No one wants to talk about Seiffedine, much less compare himself to the terrorist. The graduate’s friend, blanketed in scars even worse than Husseini’s, sat across from him nodding along. When asked how he was burned, he says it was an accident. His friend laughs.
“You see a lot of burn marks on young people now,” he explains, alluding that his friend had self-immolated like Husseini and Saber. “Around here you either stay asleep or you try to fight. But the revolution now means turning into Bouazizi or joining the Islamic State.”
Back in Kasserine, Husseini visits his mother and takes an evening stroll past the small bus station where he fell to the ground in flames five years ago. A group of young graffiti artists spray paint the words “Welcome to Kasserine” on a nearby wall, blaring Mos Def through their phones.
When they see Husseini, they get excited and drop their cans. “We figured it was the guy who got Ben Ali out,” says 26-year-old Rahmouni Mohammed. He reaches out to give Husseini a handshake, until he realizes the older man’s hands are immobile. They laugh awkwardly and fist-bump instead.
“I’m not sure if I am that guy,” Husseini says, shaking his head. “I’ll let history decide if I’m a revolutionary.”
He tightened his skullcap to cover his scarred head and soon walked back to his mother’s house. When he reached the park where Saber had burned himself alive, a group of children looked over in his direction. He quickly turned the corner before they could see his face, still visibly mutilated even in the darkness.
Lauren Bohn is The GroundTruth Project’s Middle East correspondent and editor at large based in Istanbul
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