CAIRO (Reuters) - An Egyptian man set himself on fire near parliament on Tuesday and another tried to follow suit, following a self-immolation in Tunisia that provoked mass protests and helped to oust the president.
Similar cases have been reported in Algeria and Mauritania as Arabs in authoritarian states watched with astonishment the speed at which the Tunisian uprising toppled its ruler last week. Some have responded by calling for change at home.
In Egypt, Tuesday’s acts followed an incident a day earlier when a man set himself alight outside parliament in a sign of growing public discontent in the tightly-run country.
“This is a symptom of rising anger and frustration over socio-economic injustice, but I don’t think it indicates that a Tunisian-style revolution is necessarily in the making,” said Hossam Bahgat, a human rights activist. “We certainly don’t want this to become a phenomenon. Surely there are other ways to challenge this authoritarian and corrupt government.”
Protests in Tunisia erupted after the suicide of 26-year-old vegetable trader Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire on December 17 because police seized his grocery cart.
In Cairo lawyer Mohamed Farouk Hassan, 52, shouted slogans against rising prices before setting himself on fire on Tuesday, sources said. The severity of his injuries was not clear.
“I am going to call Hassan the ‘Egyptian Bouazizi’, for he is a cocktail of oppression. He is indebted and gets little or nothing for an income. His life is miserable,” said Mamdouh Ismail, a lawyer sent to visit Hassan by the profession’s union.
Afterwards, a college student in his mid-twenties poured fuel over himself nearby but passers-by prevented him from setting himself on fire, witnesses and sources said.
Another Egyptian, 25 and unemployed, died in a hospital on Tuesday after he set himself on fire in Alexandria. Security sources said he was psychologically unwell and there was no political aim. However, his exact motive was unclear.
On Monday, an Egyptian poured gasoline over himself in Cairo and lit it after protesting against poor living conditions.
A spokesman for Al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest seat of Sunni learning that is funded by the state, would not comment on the cases of self-immolation but said suicide was forbidden in Islam. “It is unacceptable to take one’s own life as an expression of frustration or protest or anger,” Mohamed Rafa‘a al-Tahtawi told state news agency MENA.
Like Tunisians, whose public protests led to the ousting of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Arabs in many states are frustrated by soaring prices, poverty, high unemployment and authoritarian systems of rule that give them no voice.
A fifth of Egyptians live in dire poverty, and many feel economic reforms pushed by the government of President Hosni Mubarak, in power for 30 years, have not improved their lot.
“The country’s wealth is going into the fat bellies of those who have wealth and power,” said Sayed Darwish, an Egyptian bystander outside parliament.
In Algeria, where riots over the last few weeks have broken out in parallel to the unrest in Tunisia, newspapers gave their first reports on Sunday and Monday of at least four men who set themselves on fire in provincial towns in the last five days.
In Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott, police sources said Yacoub Ould Dahoud, 40, a company director and member of a wealthy family, staged a self-immolation protest on Monday against alleged government mistreatment of his tribe.
Additional reporting by Mohamed Abdellah, Reuters TV and Sarah Mikhail; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Maria Golovnina/ David Stamp