30 January 2011
Is Tunisia’s Jasmine revolution catching up with peoples in other countries in the region? As far as causes go, the complaints are all there. Cries against the high cost of living and rampant unemployment abound. In several Arab countries, the latest being Yemen, governments have resorted to raising wages and ameliorating conditions.
In Egypt where public protests have been increasingly waged against rising prices and corruption, no wages were raised but some 44,000 university graduates were appointed to government jobs. Even so, last Tuesday—which marked Police Day in Egypt—saw widespread public demonstrations in major cities in Egypt calling for change, reform, better living conditions, an end to corruption and police oppression, and more liberties.
The incident which sparked the Jasmine Revolution, though, that of the Tunisian young man Mohamed Bou-Azizi who set himself ablaze on 17 December because police seized his unlicensed grocery cart, appears to have inspired several Egyptians to do the same. Till last week some seven Egyptians had set themselves alight. An unemployed 35-year-old set himself alight and was seriously wounded, and two workers from firms in the textile sector, an industry from which many factory workers have led the most violent demonstrations against the government in recent years, also poured fuel over themselves and set themselves ablaze. There were other cases of self-immolation, although witnesses and sources said they were mainly motivated by psychological reasons rather than political protest.
The repeat of incidents of self-immolation in Egypt, especially given that they were conducted before symbolic sites such as the People Assembly and Journalists’ Syndicate, begged the question of why now? Is it possible that the Tunisian experiment would recur in Egypt: someone’s suicide may spark a revolution of change in Egypt? Watani talked to two experts on the issue.
Neither political nor economic
Economic expert, Mukhtar al-Sherif, believes the current self-immolation cases have nothing to do with either economics or politics, “It is related to psychological and social conditions. One of the persons who set themselves ablaze was going through severe financial troubles so decided to commit suicide, while another had domestic problems. “In my opinion,” Dr Sherif says, “the suicide attempts were purely individual and are not in any way related to what happened in Tunisia.
Even though some people believe that economic conditions in Egypt are sufficiently poor to lead to suicide attempts, “conditions in Egypt are generally not too dire, and almost never were,” according to Dr Sherif. “Historically, and ever since the Biblical story of Joseph, Egypt only lived through two famines—and those were particularly harsh. The first was in the 13th century in the time of the Caliph al-Mustansir and followed seven years of especially low Nile floods. The second famine occurred in 1913, when the income of the river Nile was declined.
“A common saying in Egypt goes: ‘no one dies out of hunger’,” Dr Sherif reminds, and this especially implies a very high level of social solidarity. A very active communal network makes sure needy persons are provided with their needs, and a trickle-down informal economy reaches almost every Egyptian. Charity works are practised on the individual, family, and even business levels.”
As for the spiralling prices, Dr Sherif points out that global prices have more than once leapt out of control. “If Egypt imports 60 per cent of its supplies, what can you expect?” he says.
According to psychiatrist Amgad Khairy, it is when the balance between the will of life and death is upset and social security is absent, that severe depression sets in. But there is a difference, he says, between a mere attempt at suicide and a serious suicide; some 20 per cent of suicide attempts end in death.
“What happened in Tunisia,” Dr Khairy notes, “may mark the beginning of change in other Arab countries.”
For his part, psychology professor at al-Azhar University Mohamed Mahdy says that suicide attempts are contagious. And Bou-Azizi is seen as a national hero, which is an attractive image for many people.
“The last few years,” Dr Mahdy says, “have witnessed escalating suicide attempts. In 2009 alone some 114,000 Egyptians attempted to commit suicide; 5,000 of them died. This rate is the double that of 2005. He reminds that research, since as far back as 1957, proves that 98 per cent of those who commit suicide have psychological disorders, and two per cent attempt to end their lives because of financial or emotional problems. Some 15 per cent of schizophrenics or those with manic depression attempt suicide, as do 17 per cent of drug addicts.
The current suicide attempts Egypt is witnessing, according to Dr Mahdy, are endeavours to send messages of complains or anger at the State because of unemployment, poverty, offended dignity, or despair of better living in one’s homeland.