Ever since protests erupted in Tunisia a month ago, other Arab countries have been showing signs of unrest.
The Tunisia protests were sparked by Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old fruit seller, who set himself on fire in the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid. The man had been selling fruits and vegetables from a stand without a license when state police stopped him and confiscated his produce.
In response, he set himself on fire and within hours, protests and riots had broken out, and state-run security forces were attempting to seal the town. Within a week, protests had spread the 125 miles to the capital of Tunis and soon after President Ben Ali, who had ruled the country for 23 years, was forced out of power.
Bouazizi’s self-immolation has inspired copy-cat efforts in other Arab countries such as Egypt, Algeria, and Mauritania.
One 48-year-old owner of a small restaurant in central Cairo set himself on fire outside the parliament building Monday to protest the government’s policy preventing restaurant owners from buying cheap subsidized bread to resell to their patrons. According to the Associated Press, “He escaped with only light burns on his neck, face and legs after policemen guarding the building and motorists driving by at the time used fire extinguishers to quickly put out the blaze engulfing him.”
Officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to release the information, and media reports identified the man as Abdou Abdel-Monaam Hamadah, a father of four who had repeatedly entered heated arguments with local officials over the bread issue.
Also on Monday, Yacoub Ould Dahoud, a 43-year-old man reportedly unhappy with the Mauritanian government torched himself while inside his car. He was parked outside an official building in Nouakchott, the country’s capital. Police said he was rushed to the hospital.
On the same day, a many in Algeria reportedly suffering from chronic illness set himself aflame in Ghardaia because of a medical cost dispute. He was hospitalized with burns.
Passers-by in Mascara, meanwhile, stopped a fish monger who had poured gasoline on himself and tried to set himself alight.
These incidents are a symbolic means of protest and indicate the public feeling of despair felt in many Arab countries caused by governments that resist reform and have no tolerance for dissent.
Self-immolation is an uncommon method of protest in the Arab world and is instead associated with Far East and Indian protesters. However, rural Egyptian women have been known to practice self-immolation to protest abusive husbands or parents and unwanted suitors.
These efforts can be seen as a last ditch attempt from many who have lost hope. Many are wondering if these protests will spread to other Arab countries and if the events in Tunisia will inspire activists to overthrow highly regimented governments.
“It is clear that Tunisia and its events had an impact on Egypt as well as Algeria,” said long time Egyptian columnist Salama Ahmed Salama.
But Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit ruled out the possibility that Tunisia’s political uprising will spread.
“This is pure nonsense,” he told reporters Sunday. “Those who are promoting fantasies and trying to ignite the situation will not achieve their goals and will only harm themselves.
However, frustration over high unemployment, soaring food prices, and unwillingness to institute democratic reform may be just enough fuel to fire more self-immolation attempts and uprisings.
Experts say it is hard to predict whether the self-immolation count will spread to the Muslim majority, whose faith prohibits suicide, but the incidents in Egypt, Algeria, and Mauritania are symptomatic of people giving up hope. Thus, if the people have nothing to lose, they may be more likely to act out in similar ways.
Egypt has posted impressive economic growth rates over the past few years, in part fueled by a host of ambitious reforms. But the growth has failed to filter down to many of the estimated 80 million Egyptians. Nearly half of all Egyptians live under or just above the poverty line set by the U.N. at $2 a day.
“The events in Tunisia gave a new momentum to reform and democracy activists in Egypt and what happened today will be a step for them in the same direction,” said Hossam Bahgat, head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
Of self-immolation, he said, “it is too early to tell if it will become a phenomena and let’s hope it does not because it is both tragic and unacceptable.”