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Feb-18-2012 18:47printcomments

The Butterfly Effect

Bouazizi was followed by self immolation of Mohsen Bouterfif in Algeria, Yacoub Ould Dahoud in Mauritania.

Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation
Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation

(MANAMA, Bahrain) - A small change at one place in a nonlinear system can result in large differences to a later state.

The poverty stricken nobody whose death changed the world, Mohamed Bouazizi, was a 26 year old from Tunisia.

His story prompted self-immolations across the world. While burning one's self to death is not new, the effect of Bouazizi's act has been unusually strong.

His father died when Mohamed was three. He was the main bread winner, earning less than £100 a month for his mother, sick uncle and 5 younger siblings.

On December 17th, he set up his stall as a street trader selling fruit; but within minutes Faida Hamdi, a municipal inspector and 2 other officers tried to confiscate his merchandise because he did not have a trading permit.

Vendors have a choice when faced with a municipal inspector: they can flee, and leave behind both barrow and merchandise; pay a fine equivalent to several days’ earnings; or fork out a bribe.

Bouazizi was not prepared to do any of these. Hamdi began seizing his apples; he tried to grab them back, and she slapped him in the face, the height of humiliation for an Arab man.

Mohamed Bouazizi

He complained but was told there was nothing he could do.

Two hours later, he was back, poured 2 bottles of paint-thinner over himself, and demanded, once more, to see an official. Then he lit his cigarette lighter. The rest is current history

Bouazizi died of his burns on January 4, 2011, setting off the demonstrations in Tunisia in early 2011.

Mohamed Bouazizi’s death from his wounds prompted protests across Tunisia, forcing autocratic President Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country.

Britain’s The Times newspaper on Wednesday named as person of the year Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian whose self-immolation inspired uprisings that toppled dictators across the Arab world and shook the region's remaining autocracies.

Bouazizi was followed by self immolation of Mohsen Bouterfif in Algeria, Yacoub Ould Dahoud in Mauritania.

In the past, many people recoiled from such protesters as attention-seeking lunatics. Or the authorities were too powerful.

According to Robert F. Worth, writing in the New York Times, “Whatever the motive, suicide sometimes spreads like a disease, especially when heavily covered in the media.”


David P. Phillips, a sociologist at the University of California, San Diego, published a 1974 study documenting spikes in the number of suicides after well-publicized cases. He called it “the Werther effect,” after the rash of suicides that followed the 1774 publication of “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” the novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe whose romantic hero kills himself.

“One thing is strongly suggested by the academic studies: People are more likely to copy suicides if they see that they have results, or get wide attention,” Dr. Phillips said.

In 1972 meteorologist Edward Lorenz theorized that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil could cause a tornado in Texas.

The flapping wing represents a small change in the initial condition of the system, which causes a chain of events leading to large-scale alterations of events.

Had the butterfly not flapped its wings, the trajectory of the system might have been vastly different.

The temptation is to attempt to predict what small changes will have major effects. The best one can do is to fantasize on what's possible and to wager on what's probable.

Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu's end came suddenly and unexpectedly when the government harassed an ethnic Hungarian priest over something he had said.

Remember these words from a Bruce Springsteen song:

From small things, mama

Big things one day come...

You might also want to read... The Questionable Effectiveness of Lighting Yourself on Fire - Tim King


Throughout his life as an educator, Dr. Paul J. Balles, a retired American university professor and freelance writer, has lived and worked in the Middle East for 40 years - first as an English professor (Universities of Kuwait and Bahrain), and for the past ten years as a writer, editor and editorial consultant.

He’s a weekly Op-Ed columnist for the GULF DAILY NEWS . Dr. Balles is also Editorial Consultant for Red House Marketing and a regular contributor to Bahrain This Month. He writes a weekly op-ed column for Akbar Al Khaleej (Arabic). He has also edited seven websites, including,

Paul has had more than 350 articles published, focusing on companies, personality profiles, entrpreneurs, women achievers, journalists and the media, the Middle East, American politics, the Internet and the Web, consumer reports, Arabs, diplomats, dining out and travel. Paul's articles on are frank and enlightening. We are very appreciative of the incredible writings Dr. Balles has generated for our readers over the years, and we are very pleased to list him among our most valued contributors.

Indulging the hard subjects that keep the world divided is our specialty at, and with writers like Dr. Paul Balles on our team, we amplify our ability to meet challenges and someday, will see the effects of this exist in context with a more peaceful and generally successful world.

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