Algerian, Mauritanian set selves alight
Cairo - Protesters have set themselves on fire in Mauritania and Algeria in apparent copycat self-immolation attempts inspired by the act that helped trigger a popular uprising in Tunisia.
The incidents on Monday, while isolated, reflect the growing despair among the public of many Arab regimes resisting reform after an Egyptian man was also reported to have set himself on fire on the same day. They are deeply symbolic means of protest in a region that has little or no tolerance for dissent.
It was the self-immolation of a 26-year-old unemployed man in Tunisia last month that sparked the tidal wave of protests that toppled President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali last week.
Ben Ali ruled with an iron fist for 23 years, time spent in the company of similarly authoritarian rulers across much of the Arab world like Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, in power since 1969, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, in office since 1981, and Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled that impoverished nation since he seized power more than 30 years.
The stunning collapse of the Tunisian leader drew a litany of calls for change elsewhere in the Arab world, but activists faced the reality of vast security forces heavily vested in the status quo and hard-line regimes that crack down on dissent.
The men who have set themselves alight in recent days appeared to be inspired by the self-immolation of Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi, a university graduate whose fruits and vegetables market stand was confiscated by police because it had no permit. His death touched a nerve with educated, unemployed youths in the North African country, prompting the mass protests that toppled Ben Ali.
Self-immolation as a method of protest is uncommon in the Arab world, where many associate it with protesters in the Far East or the Indian subcontinent. But Egyptian women in rural or poor urban areas have been known to set themselves on fire to protest violent husbands, abusive parents or an unwanted suitor.
"It is clear that Tunisia and its events had an impact on Egypt as well as Algeria," said veteran Egyptian columnist Salama Ahmed Salama. The attempted self-immolation in Cairo on Monday, he added, will be a "worrying element to the government."
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 on Sunday. "Those who are promoting fantasies and trying to ignite the situation will not achieve their goals and will only harm themselves.
But frustration over high unemployment, soaring food prices and a lack of democratic reform has echoed in Egypt and elsewhere in the region where governments face similar complaints.
The 48-year-old owner of a small restaurant who set himself on fire outside the parliament building on Monday in central Cairo was angry about a government policy preventing restaurant owners from buying cheap subsidised bread to resell to their patrons, according to security officials at the scene.
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.
The incident was captured on amateur video showing closed-circuit television pictures filmed on a mobile phone and then posted on the Internet. The Associated Press cannot verify the authenticity of the images.
Officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorised 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 Monday, a Mauritanian man reportedly unhappy with the government torched himself in his car outside an official building in the capital, Nouakchott. Foreign ministry official Adbou Ould Sidi said police rushed 43-year-old Yacoub Ould Dahoud to the hospital.
In Algeria, local officials who declined to be identified said one man suffering a chronic illness set himself on fire on Monday in Ghardaia in a dispute over medical costs and was hospitalised with burns. Passers-by in Mascara, meanwhile, stopped a fish monger who had poured gasoline on himself and tried to set himself alight.
That raised to seven the number of reported cases in seven Algerian towns since Saturday. Algeria's Liberte daily reported that a 37-year-old man who set himself alight on Saturday in a village near the Tunisian border, died hours later in the hospital.
Analysts said it was difficult to predict whether the practice could spread among the overwhelming Muslim majority inhabiting the Arab world, whose faith prohibits suicide. But the incidents in Egypt, Algeria and Mauritania are symptomatic of a people close to giving up on hope of better economic lives or more freedoms.
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 UN 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, an advocacy group.
Of the self-immolation efforts, 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".