Must Arab citizens burn their bodies to solve their problems?

Tuesday 19 February 201902:43 pm
It was not simply suicide but an explosive expression of rage. George Zureik burned his body igniting a spark in the hearts of his two children. He chose to burn himself alive in the yard of their school in protest when he failed to pay their school fees. George’s self immolation has rekindled anger across the Arab world both online and beyond, evoking the image of the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, who burned himself in Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2010 in protest against the confiscation of his vegetable cart, unleashing a tide of protest in Tunisia then all across the region, the effects of which have not yet subsided.   Zureik passed away on February 8th after setting himself ablaze in the courtyard of his daughter's school in the village of Bekfatin, north of Lebanon in protest against the school authorities not granting him a school report in order to transfer his daughter from her private school to a less costly government school. George was rushed to hospital after the incident but 80 percent of his body was covered in burns and he did not survive his injuries. Zureik like Bouazizi was of humble origins, their sufferings were not unusual or novel, they were crushed by dire poverty. Zureik had transferred his son from the private Sayedeh Bkafetin school to a less costly government school but his daughter continued to matriculate there. According to the journalist Mohammed Nazal, Zureik had decided to also transfer his daughter to the government school after being harassed by the Sayedeh school headmaster for delaying the payment of outstanding school fees. The headmaster refused to issue him the report necessary for the transfer unless Zureik paid the fees. Zureik threatened that he would burn himself alive in front of the school if he was not granted the report but the headmaster did not heed this declaration. Zureik had offered to work as a driver for the headmaster in order to pay the school fees but his proposal was rejected. His wife worked as a cleaner in the school in an attempt to make a dent in the debt. But the headmaster deducted more than two-thirds of her salary (about 500 thousand Lira equivalent to about $300). Talking about the school principal may seem futile after Zureik’s passing & his bereft family. The school administration denied responsibility and attempted to distance themselves from Zureik’s immolation in their official statement which stated "the school sympathized with him because of his economic conditions, and exempt him from paying school fees, except for transportation fees and stationery and activities outside the classroom."

"We will all take over their education"

The incident sparked angry responses on social media. Minister of Education Akram Chehayeb pledged to ensure that Zureik’s children would continue their education and that an investigation of the school administration would be launched. Kuwaiti parliamentarian Khalaf Dumeithar Al-Anazi also announced via a phone interview with Al-Jadeed channel that he would donate $10,000 to the Zureik family and send them a monthly stipend declaring that this was "the least that could be offered" to the family of a man who burned himself for the education of his two children. The Minister of State for Foreign Trade, Hassan Murad, tweeted that the ministry would "offer the children of the victim a college education free of charge at the Lebanese International University." Commenting on these charitable offers, Lebanese journalist Jamal Fayyad said: "The generosity of people towards the children of Georges Zureik after his suicide means that you have to commit suicide and die for us to care about you but as long as you live you will only be humiliated”.  Lebanese journalists Pierre Abi Saab said: "George’s problem ended after he set fire to his worn-out body. The rest of the poor citizenry remain, could someone help us build a state?"

Protest is futile

Lebanese journalist Doja Daoud told Raseef22 that Arab citizens do not need to burn themselves to have their voices heard but often they have no other choices because protesting has proven to be futile. What was formerly effective has been undermined by the strategies implemented by Arab regimes to suppress protest before it happens. She added: "Since there is a new government and a relatively new parliament, everyone has rushed on social media to adopt causes in order to appear as compassionate and good people". She pointed out that the assistance that came to the family was mere "politicking" noting that the solution is not only to help the family, but the reform of the economy and the educational system in order to prevent similar tragedies from reoccurring. "The voices get louder every time a striking case is exposed however it's very rare when the media follows a case in order to inform public opinion of how it is progressing and politicians do not want to talk about them because they do not want to highlight the results of their continued rule since the Lebanese civil war," she added. "So one case dies out for another to appear without a solution being found for the first case, so the root of the matter is never resolved". Daoud stressed that the news that Zureik had self immolated would not have spread had it not been for the group of young journalists who had seen the story in "miscellaneous news" category on the page of the National Media Agency and published it on Facebook. She added: "George is the Lebanese every-man, the struggle with debt and education faces us all in Lebanon which is what sparked all this social solidarity."

Who will take care of his daughter?

"We need to revolt against ourselves to reject repressive methods and imposed choices, and we do not need to burn ourselves," Lebanese journalist and blogger Ahmed Yassin told Raseef22. "George Zureik burned himself for his daughters sake but who will take care of her now?" Yassin pointed out that Kuwaiti MP al-Anazi donated both as a philanthropic gesture towards the family but also as a reprimand to Lebanese officials who are "in a state of separation from reality" and unaware of how the dire economic situation lead to George’s self immolation and the suicide of Mohamed Sharab a month before that. The writer Michelin Habib said: "Members of parliament should not pay the school fees of the children of George Zureik after the loss of their father. MPs should be required to perform their duties that will prevent the occurrence of such a tragedy." She said the payment of donations and public outcry on platforms like Twitter does not provide citizens with real protection.

Zureik only lit up social media

"It is doubtful that any Arab ruler would be affected if a large number of citizens burned themselves," said Lebanese journalist Yumna Fawaz. "They have a tremendous capacity for denial and hypocrisy." She said that only one thing can move them is the intervention of major powers and fear over their positions. She said that while Bouazizi ignited the Arab spring revolution, Zureik only lit up social media in Lebanon and was able to receive educational grants for his children and "a few thousand for his family, no more." What was striking, she told Raseef22, was how the state was blamed by politicians and citizens alike who are questioning who should be accused, who should be held accountable and how can the situation be resolved.
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