Facebook, Self-Immolation and the Mechanics of Regime Change

March 9, 2011

A guy in Egypt is caught up in the exuberance of a (relatively) bloodless revolution and names his daughter Facebook.

All of a sudden everyone thinks “the” social network can topple dictators.

I hope this guy is getting Charlie Sheen money for product placement.  The damage to the kid in later life will be like a sad sagging tattoo on an aging body. She will scarcely remember the good old days, and carry the scars for life. As if she had been named Broadside in the wake of American Revolution.

You do remember that beautiful bouncing baby Broadside, don’t you?

The point is that dissemination employs the best technology of the day. Drum, word of mouth, printing press, newspapers, posters, leaflets, phone-trees, mass-mailings, radio, TV, faxes, e-mails, texts, closed social networks…

For the meme to propagate at the rate it did, there needed to be real festering grievances, felt by masses of people.

Through the magic of video, we can see something of the birth of the meme.

The wave of regime change in North Africa and the Middle East was apparently started by a poor peddler, a college graduate with no work by the name of Mohamed Bouazizi, living in the small provincial town of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia, who got fed up with the police abusing him and stealing his wares.  He was well loved by his neighbors.

On the day he was pushed too far, he doused himself with gasoline and set himself afire outside the local government office.  His neighbors were aghast. So were the authorities. The series of denials and heavy handed miscalculations by those in power ultimately led to the popular uprising that made the regime of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali null and void after 23 years of power.

It wasn’t a no-fly zone imposed by an international body but flown principally by America.

And it wasn’t shock-and-awe bombing.  Or unilateral invasion under false pretenses.

And it certainly wasn’t the hijacking of four commercial jetliners and crashing them and all their innocent victims into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the US Capitol (if that final jet had not been stopped mid-flight).

Regime change was initiated not by politicians or armies or thugs.  It was initiated by a  humble street peddler. And his SELF sacrifice resonated so deeply with his own people they decided to take a stand. Mohamed Bouazizi became the people’s martyr.

Self–immolation as an effective means of protest has been  practiced since the beginning of time. The ultimate in suicide street theater. Horrible, unfathomably horrible and desperate.

I watched it work on TV and in newspapers 40 years ago with similar dramatic effect.

These were the images in newspapers and on TV that helped turn Americans away from continued war in Vietnam.

Buddhist monks, unhappy with the puppet regime installed by the USA, running South Vietnam as we fought “their” war.  And while the South Vietnamese regime talked democracy and freedom, it banned the religious practices of the majority while promoting those of the minority.

And when the monks suffered long enough in silence and seclusion,  they went into public places… and sometimes they doused themselves in gasoline and burned.

The showcased their grievances in the public square.  Personally and individually.

With those acts, they seized the moral high ground. Their very public self- sacrifice symbolized their suffering for the world to see. They helped end popular American support for the war our sons were fighting in Southeast Asia.

And in Tunisia, Bouazizi killed himself in that very same, very public way.

Since then, scores of others have tried to ignite the flames of regime change with their own bodies across the Middle East and North Africa… from Egypt to Mauritania to Saudi Arabia. There is so much human capital, not not mention oil at stake, oil that apparently is essential to the American economic recovery our stock market is predicting, but which has not yet been felt by most people,  it is hard to predict what the end game will be.

Sane religious leaders don’t condone self-immolation. I certainly don’t.

But let the fanboys and girls of the latest tech remember… the internet, when and while it is allowed to flourish, is simply the current, incidental enabler of regime change… it can also be a similarly effective tool to crush dissent by a regime intent on self-preservation… and will be used by whoever can access it to best effect until it is displaced by the newest, latest tech or media.



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