Suicide on the rise in Tunisia

A last desperate stand

Tunisia is considered a paragon of the Arab Spring. Despite democratic reforms, however, a mood of political frustration and economic despair still prevails, particularly among young people. Since 2011 the country has seen an increase in the number of suicides – an act some see as a form of political protest. By Hannah El-Hitami

The young man in the YouTube video holds up a plastic bottle filled with petrol. "In twenty minutes I am going to set myself on fire," announces the Tunisian Abderrazak Zorgui, shortly before committing suicide last December. It was his way of protesting against unemployment and poverty in his home town of Kasserine in central Tunisia. "If even one person gets a job, then my death was not in vain," explained the journalist in his last message. A few hours later he succumbed to his injuries in hospital – and protests broke out yet again on the streets of Kasserine.

Almost exactly eight years before Zorgui, the greengrocer Mohamed Bouazizi likewise took his own life through self-immolation, thus triggering the Tunisian Revolution – which in turn sparked a wave of protest from Egypt to Yemen that would come to be known as the Arab Spring. Since then, suicide rates in Tunisia have risen every year, especially in December. Some of these deaths, like that of Zorgui, are covered in the international media, but most remain unknown.

"What we have been witnessing since 2011 is a new phenomenon that did not exist before," says Fatma Charfi, a child psychologist and a member of the nationwide Technical Committee Against Suicide. "An individual with no prospects for the future kills himself out of sheer hopelessness. But by doing so in front of others, he tries to make his death an act of social protest. This is a message to the state: I have failed, but I don't want others to fail." According to Charfi, 25- to 40-year-olds are most at risk. And it is also striking that the suicide rate among children and adolescents has risen.

Many are worse off than before

Tunisia is considered a paragon of democratic change in the wake of the Arab Spring. No war broke out here like in Syria, Libya or Yemen. No military government seized power as happened in Egypt. People are no longer imprisoned and tortured for speaking their minds: both president and parliament have been democratically elected since 2011.

Unrest following the self-immolation of journalist Abderrazak Zorgui in Kasserine (photo: Reuters)
Outraged by the state's indifference and incompetence: the death of Tunisian journalist Abderrazak Zorgui at the end of December 2018 triggered furious protests. Youths set buildings and vehicles on fire and blocked roads in Kasserine. Even after Zorgui's funeral, riots broke out again in the poverty-stricken town, some 270 kilometres from the capital Tunis

And yet, despite the democratisation process, people still feel that economic prosperity has passed them by. Many are in fact worse off than before the revolution. And they are disappointed because the great expectations they had for what political change would bring have not been fulfilled. The country's suicide rate has been rising since 2011: self-immolation is now the most common method after hanging. Between 2011 and 2016, the number of self-immolations tripled each year. Forensic experts documented 148 cases during that period. Those who burn themselves do so publicly – in the hope that their death will make a difference.

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