CAIRO/ALGIERS (Reuters) - The self-immolation that set off the protest wave which toppled Tunisia’s leader has led to apparent copycat protests in other north African states, with four men setting themselves on fire in Algeria and one each in Egypt and Mauritania.
In Cairo, a man set himself ablaze on Monday near parliament in a protest against poor living conditions.
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.
And 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.
Witnesses said he doused himself in gasoline while sitting in his locked car in front of the presidential palace, and set himself on fire. Security forces and passers-by broke the windows to remove him. He was sent to hospital with severe burns.
“Are we seeing a new trend?” wrote Blake Hounshell, who covers the Middle East at foreignpolicy.com, in a blog on Monday after the Egyptian and Algerian protests.
“There is something horrifying and, in a way, moving about these suicide attempts. It’s a shocking, desperate tactic that instantly attracts attention, revulsion, but also sympathy.”
Activists throughout the Arab world say they have been inspired by the example of Tunisia, the first country in generations where an Arab leader was toppled by public protests.
The protests that brought down Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali 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.
Bouazizi died weeks later of his burns, becoming a martyr to crowds of students and the unemployed protesting against poor living conditions. Ben Ali had visited him in hospital, a gesture that failed to win him public sympathy.
“Tunisia is now the model to follow for all Arabs. The time for dictators and dictatorships is over,” said Mohamed Lagab, political analyst and teacher of political science at Algiers university.
Like Tunisians, many other Arabs are frustrated by soaring prices, poverty, high unemployment and systems of rule that ignore their voices.
In Egypt, authorities are adamant that there will be no large-scale unrest. “We do not want this to be another Tunisia, we are looking after the public good,” an Egyptian security source said.
A witness who worked in parliament said the Egyptian man poured fuel over himself and then set himself alight when people tried to approach him on Monday.
A security source who questioned the man, Abdouh Abdel Moneim, aged about 50, said he suffered only light injuries because parliamentary security quickly put out the flames.
“The man was frustrated because he could not get his ration coupons from Ismailiya (east of Cairo) to buy subsidised goods. He came to parliament to find someone to help him,” he said.
Doctors told reporters his burns did not exceed 15 percent of his body and were mainly to the face. The local mayor said the man had a history of mental illness but Ayman Nour, a opposition politician, said Abdel Moneim had been troubled by economic conditions.
“Definitely, definitely, definitely,” Nour said when asked if there was a link between the incident and Tunisian events. “Security is leaning in the direction of making him out to be psychologically ill. I want to say that Egypt is full of psychologically troubled people because of what happens here.”
In Algeria, a man named Senouci Touat doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire in the city of Mostaganem, 350 km (220 miles) west of the capital Algiers, El Watan and El Khabar newspapers reported. His life was not in danger.
Mohsen Bouterfif set himself ablaze on Thursday in Algeria’s Tebessa province when a town’s mayor failed to secure him a house. Newspapers said on Sunday he had died, but a government source later said he was alive at hospital and might survive.
In Bordj Menail, 26-year-old Aouichia Mohamed set himself on fire on Wednesday. The fourth incident took place in the town of Jijel, newspapers said.
“Billions of dollars have been invested in development programmes with no positive impact over the daily life of Algerian citizens,” wrote the Algerian daily al Watan. “Signs of social misery are visible all over the country... Algeria’s street is rumbling. A hotbed of violence is very likely.”