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Why are Egyptians burning themselves alive?

Analysts try to understand and explain the reasons behind the recent recurring incidents of self-immolation in Egypt

Thursday 20 Jan 2011
Repeated suicide
Acts of self immolation spread throughout the Arab World, replicating what happened in Tunisia. Cartoon by Fahi Abul Ezz
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Views: 5111

Some analysts see self-immolation as an act of desperation, not an act aimed at sparking revolutions.

”Anger, frustration, injustice, and a belief that doors are closed in their face” are the reasons behind the repeated incidents of self-immolation, claims Hossam Bahgat, a human rights activist and the head of the Egyptian Personal Initiative for Human Rights.

Mohamed Bouazizi, the fruit vendor in Tunisia who set himself on fire and, by doing so, set off the protests that toppled President Zine El Abidine ben Ali, has inspired copycats in Egypt, Algeria and Mauritania.

Today police forces prevented and arrested an Egyptian man from setting himself ablaze in front of the Egyptian parliament today morning. 

At least five Egyptians have set themselves on fire in Cairo and Alexandria since Monday, protesting unemployment and living conditions in the country.

On Tuesday, Ahmed Al-Sayed, a 25-year-old Egyptian who had turned himself into a human fireball on the roof of his house, succumbed to his injuries in hospital.

He was one of six such cases of self-immolation in Egypt, and one of more than 10 in the Arab world.

Another man, believed to be a lawyer in his 40s, set himself alight outside the government headquarters in Cairo yesterday. He was slightly injured and was taken to the hospital.

This last incident follows a similar one in Cairo on Monday, in which a man poured gasoline on himself and set himself on fire in front of the People's Assembly.

But in a statement to AFP Sunday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit downplayed fears of a Tunisian-style popular revolt spreading to other Arab countries, saying the idea was "nonsense."

These recurring incidents of self-immolation in Egypt, Algeria, and Mauritania have left analysts wondering why.
“People are inspired by the Tunisian experience, and they are trying to draw an analogy between Egypt and Tunisia. If they have corruption, we do too; and if they have poverty, we also do; unemployment, we are unemployed,” said Amr Hamzawy, research director at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

Although some similarities between Egypt and Tunisia do exist, the two countries are different in their socio-economic dynamic: the middle class is believed to make up as much as 80 per cent of Tunisian society, while in Egypt it is only around 30 per cent.

Bahgat has expressed concerns that “the media is encouraging it (self-immolation)." "The media," he says, "could analyse and politicians could sit and talk about the revolution, but I doubt anyone of them is ready to set himself on fire.”

But the media is hardly encouraging suicide attempts. Most television programs have warned people that if they commit suicide, they will go to hell. State newspapers and television have either ignored the news or emphasised the attempts' futility.

Also, almost every media outlet has announced that the perpetrator of the first Egyptian incident is mentally unstable, as was the victim who died in Alexandria. Some have even gone so far as to publish documents proving the latter had been in an asylum 20 years ago.

Dr. Hany El-Sobky, a consultant psychiatrist and member of the World Federation for Mental Health, firmly states that “those people are not sick. They are frustrated."

"But the government is in denial. The first day someone set himself on fire, they were quick to produce documents to say he is not well. The second day three did the same thing. Are they all crazy?” asked El-Sobky.

He describes the Tunisia-inspired suicide attempts as 'global hysteria.' He made a distinction between those who commit suicide in private “pathological depression,” and those who want the whole world to see them have a “hysterical reaction.” El-Sobkiy adds that the latter is an act of seeking attention “so that authorities may save him and look into his demands."

But will the demands of those who died be fulfilled? And what are their demands: do they want to change their own economic situation, or do they aspire to change the political leadership?

Amr Asaad, a political activist and consultant on marketing and corporate social responsibility, says, “What I do not understand is why we are affected by Tunisia in any way beyond happiness and inspiration. I see many people counting the days and the bodies set on fire, and wondering why are we not reacting in the same way. “

Bahgat is worried about those who are waiting for a revolution to happen in Egypt, saying, “They think that if you set yourself on fire, the president will just take his plane and go to Saudi Arabia. Apparently not.”

El-Sobky, agrees with Bahgat that self-immolations are not very likely to propel a revolution. And he believes that this is because of people's level of awareness. In Tunisia only one man burned himself and the rest of the people revolted until they removed the regime. Here in Egypt, people are just burning themselves, causing hysteria that is mostly limited to the lower classes.

“It is a primitive, childish, and ignorant form of revolt. Those who have awareness and education have a different attitude to protests. I can sacrifice myself, go on a protest or a strike, and be ready to die for a cause if authorities torture or kill me, but I will not kill myself,” said El-Sobky.

However, Carnegie's Hamzawy has another explanation to why the Bouazizi scenario is not repeating itself in Cairo. The man who toppled the 23-years-old authoritarian regime in Tunisia was born in the rural town of Sidi Bouzid, some 160 miles from the country’s capital Tunis. “It is a tribal region, something like Upper Egypt, where everyone knows him. There is a sense of loyalty, unlike in urban cities. That’s why People were personally touched and revolted,” said Hamzawi.
He also cites other reasons, relating to the nature of middle class. “In Tunisia" Hamzawi explains," it (the middle class) is wide and stable, in Egypt it is not. Also Ben Ali was very harsh, while here there is some freedom of expression.”

The most important factor, according to Hamzawi and other analysts Ahram Online had spoken to, is that, before 17 December, no one knew there was going to be an uprising in Tunisia. They took the world by surprise. But now, Arab countries are on high alert: the Egypt and Algeria governments have promised to reduce food prices, and Kuwait has promised to pump $4 billion into its economy in order to ease the crisis.

On the political level, the Egyptian government is responding to the Tunisian experience in different ways. Using state media, it is warning of the chaos in Tunisia so as to frighten people, telling them that “change has to be done their way, the way we choose. It is either us or the Islamists, or chaos,” says Hamzawi.

In the meantime, the Egyptian government is tightening its oppressive measures. There is police everywhere in an attempt to intimidate both the opposition and those who may try self-immolation.

But is a revolution likely in Egypt? After all, the Tunisian experience has left many Arab countries hopeful of change.

“The importance of the Tunisian experience is that it showed the world that an Arab regime could be changed not necessarily through America or Europe. That’s why we are all very hopeful that things will go well for the new Tunisia. Because if they don’t, it will be not only a loss to Tunisians but a loss to all Arab countries,” Bahgat believes.

However, Asaad expects to soon see an uprising in Egypt – "a big popular one. People are hungry, angry, deprived of basic rights in education, economy, employment, actual political power, even expression is controlled. They are mad at the unprecedented level of corruption and nepotism they see every day.”

Asaad adds that the recent church bombing and Samalout train shooting, combined with torture cases like that of Khaled Said, “show new signs of government weakness, namely its impotence in facing immediate problems.

"More important," Asaad argues, "here it shows an incremental involvement of new societal segments in political activism.”

Most analysts agree with Asaad, but this leaves us asking whether a revolution will be sparked in Egypt soon, and if so, how?

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28-02-2015 08:27pm
No author is available. Who wrote this?
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22-01-2011 03:40pm
The Tunisian experience isn't to be treated as a copy/paste. What worked there, doesn't mean it has to work any other place. Over there it was a spontanious act, and I like that the article pointed out it was someone from the rural area, where the 'united we stand' concept is much stronger than in urban areas.
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Kristina Bergmann
21-01-2011 04:43pm
Very good article, Lina. I am a journalist too, we had a short encounter. Could you pass me the contact of Amr Asaad? Kristina
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