Experts: Tunisia-style suicides in Egypt could spur change, if not revolution

Desperate Egyptians setting themselves on fire like their Tunisian counterparts are unlikely to spur wide-ranging protests, but they might serve to pressure the government into providing economic concessions ahead of a pivotal presidential election in September, experts say.

At least nine Egyptian men have so far followed the example of 26-year-old Tunisian Mohammed Bouazizi, who, by setting himself alight in mid-December, is widely believed to have triggered the uprising that led to the overthrow of Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Ben Ali had ruled the North African country with an iron fist for 23 years.

Along with one case of self-immolation in Mauritania, seven people in Algeria–where riots in recent weeks have broken out alongside the unrest in Tunisia–set themselves on fire to protest poor living conditions.

While many Egyptian experts rule out the possibility that the wave of self-immolation might cause a "domino effect" in the region, some believe it will at least have an impact.  

"The government has just announced that it would not reduce subsidies, even though it’s been mulling how to reduce subsidies on basic foodstuffs over the last couple months,” said economy expert Mohamed Nour el-Din. “The government’s decision could be partly attributed to the recent high-profile suicide attempts.”  

In a move that surprised many economists–who believe that increasing subsidies will further increase Egypt’s overall budget deficit–the government on Sunday said it might spend an additional LE4.5 billion to LE7 billion on food subsidies during the current fiscal year.

"It’s not only food items,” Nour el-Din said. "The government is also now talking about keeping fuel prices at their current levels, despite the fact that global oil prices have recently gone up."

Deploying Islam

Besides providing economic incentives aimed at preempting a Tunisia-style revolt, Egyptian authorities have also appealed to Islamic teachings in an effort to delegitimize the notion of suicide.  

On Thursday, the Religious Endowments Ministry instructed the imams at mosques throughout Egypt to focus on the Islamic prohibition of suicide in their Friday sermons.

In a press statement, Minister of Endowments Hamdi Zaqzouq said this week’s sermon–delivered in all mosques nationwide–would focus on “the Islamic ruling on suicide.” Zaqzouq added that the sermon would include injunctions against suicide from both the Quran and Sunnah.

Despite the fact that suicide is considered a form of apostasy in Islam, suicide rates in Egypt have nevertheless risen to alarming levels in recent years.   

Some 3700 suicides were reported in 2007, up from 2355 in 2006 and 1160 in 2005. In 2009, an estimated 5000 Egyptians committed suicide, along with 104,000 failed suicide attempts, according to official statistics agency CAPMAS.

"Unfortunately, suicide has become a common phenomenon in Egypt,” said Azza Kouraiam, a sociology professor at the government-run National Center for Social and Criminological Research.

Egypt’s revolution?

The rash of self-immolations in Egypt is also unlikely to inspire a Tunisia-like uprising because Egyptians have become inured to violence in recent years, say experts.

Torture and police brutality, for example, have become facts of life for many Egyptians, especially over the last five years, when new communication technologies have allowed images of abuse to be viewed by millions of people. Emad al-Kabir, a microbus driver who was filmed being sodomized by a police captain in 2006, was one of the first such cases.   

“Egyptians have gradually grown more accustomed to violence, not only through direct contact with state agencies or each other, but also through images broadcast through YouTube and mobile phone devices,” said Egyptian anthropologist Fayrouz Karawya.   

Local media almost unanimously portrayed the recent attempts at self-immolation as having being motivated by individual concerns over deteriorating economic conditions, while downplaying the fact that at least four such incidents were reported to have taken place outside Egypt's parliament building.

Although suicide represents an individual act, some experts believe that instances of public self-burning could contain a broader, collective meaning.    

“If someone sets himself alight before parliament, he is trying to convey a message to society,” said Karawya. “But the way the message has been re-constructed by the media could lead to a misinterpretation of their motives.”

The Egyptian regime, according to Karawya, has effectively managed to decouple economic demands from political ones, leaving the country's various protest movements in a state of limbo.

“Egypt’s opposition groups have failed to articulate the daily needs of the ordinary citizen and transform them into a wide-ranging protest movement,” she said.  

On the other hand, some analysts believe that recent government attempts to ease the economic burden on the public could embolden Egypt’s foundering labor movement.

"The Egyptian experience shows us that the proliferation of workers’ strikes occurred in 2007 and 2008, when the country's economic situation was relatively good," said political analyst Tamer Mohammed.

Offering a range of incentives to public-sector employees will not necessarily result in keeping them quiet, according to Mohammed, but rather might serve to encourage them to step up their demands.

This week, Egyptian media reported that the government was currently studying a proposal to raise public-sector wages.  

Independent labor organizations estimate that over 3,000 labor strikes, sit-ins and work stoppages have taken place since 2004 to demand better wages and work conditions.  

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