- Associated Press - Monday, January 17, 2011

CAIRO (AP) — Protesters set themselves on fire in Egypt, Algeria and Mauritania on Monday in apparent copycat self-immolation attempts inspired by the act that helped trigger a popular uprising in Tunisia.

The desperate acts raised concerns that the practice could become a trend among activists seeking to force change in a region that has little or no tolerance for dissent.

The Egyptian man was engulfed by flames after he ignited himself outside the parliament building in central Cairo. Policemen guarding the building and motorists driving by at the time used fire extinguishers to quickly put out the blaze, according to security officials.

Health Ministry spokesman Abdel-Rahman Shahine said the man was taken to the hospital with light burns, mostly to his face, neck and legs. Officials identified him as Abdu Abdel-Moneim Hamadah, a 48-year-old owner of a small restaurant from Qantara, an area close to the Suez Canal city of Ismailia, east of Cairo.

Officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media, said Mr. Hamadah was protesting a government policy preventing restaurant owners from buying cheap subsidized bread to resell to their patrons.

A subsidized loaf of typical Egyptian flat bread sells for about 1 U.S. cent apiece, but sells for five times that much to restaurant owners.

Mr. Hamadah asked policemen guarding the parliament building to meet speaker Fathi Sorour, officials said. When they refused, Mr. Hamadah stepped back, took out a bottle filled with petrol from his pocket, doused himself with the liquid and set himself alight.

The policemen and passing motorists rushed to him with fire extinguishers to put out the flames.

The website of Egypt’s leading Al-Ahram daily said Mr. Hamadah was a father of four and repeatedly entered heated arguments with local officials over the bread issue.

A Mauritanian man reportedly unhappy with the government also was hospitalized after setting himself on fire Monday.

Witnesses say 43-year-old Yacoub Ould Dahoud drove to a government building in the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott, and torched himself in his car. Foreign Ministry official Abdou Ould Sidi said police rushed him to the hospital.

Algeria, for its part, has reported cases of self-immolation in seven towns since Saturday, two of them Monday.

In Ghardaia, a man suffering from a chronic illness set himself on fire because of a dispute over medical costs. He was hospitalized with burns, a local official said.

In the town of Mascara, meanwhile, passers-by stopped a fishmonger who had poured gasoline on himself and kept him from setting himself alight, said an official.

Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity out of security concerns.

The incidents appeared to be attempts to copy the fatal self-immolation last month of an unemployed Tunisian man. That event triggered the protests that led to the ouster of Tunisia’s authoritarian president.

Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old with a university degree, set himself on fire after police confiscated the fruits and vegetables he was selling without a permit. He later died in a hospital near Tunis, and his desperate act touched a nerve with educated, unemployed youths nationwide in Tunisia and sparked the mass protests that toppled President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

News of the Tunisian uprising has dominated the Arab media over the past few days.

Opposition and independent newspapers lauded Mr. Ben Ali’s fall and drew parallels between his toppled regime and that of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled for nearly 30 years.

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 United Nations at $2 a day. Mr. Mubarak and his ruling National Democratic Party have been pledging to ensure that the fruits of economic reforms benefit more Egyptians.

Self-immolation as a method of protest is uncommon in Egypt, although women in rural and poor urban areas have been known to set themselves on fire to protest violent husbands, abusive parents or an unwanted suitor.

Associated Press writers Ahmed Mohamed in Nouakchott, Mauritania, and Aomar Ouali in Algiers, Algeria, contributed to this report.


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