CAIRO — A 25-year-old unemployed man died in a hospital on Tuesday after setting himself on fire in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria, security officials said, amid a wave of self-immolation attempts possibly inspired by events in Tunisia.
Alexandria resident Ahmed Hashem el-Sayed had been unemployed for a year and suffered from depression and may have been mimicking the Tunisian man who set himself alight last month and set off a popular uprising that deposed the government there, said officials.
The death comes amid a rash of such attempts in Egypt. On Tuesday, two men attempted to set themselves on fire in downtown Cairo, just a day after another man soaked himself in gasoline and burned himself in front of parliament. All three survived, however.
El-Sayed, a construction worker, was on his roof in Alexandria when he slashed his wrists and set himself on fire Monday night, the officials added, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media. They said el-Sayed has suffered from depression since one of his brothers set himself on fire and died five years ago.
The incidents come as protesters in Mauritania and Algeria also set themselves alight in apparent attempts to copy Tunisian Mohammed Bouazizi, 26, whose self-immolation helped inspire the protests that toppled Tunisia's authoritarian president.
While isolated, the incidents in Egypt, Mauritania and Algeria reflect the growing despair among much of the Arab public which has no real means of expressing its dissatisfaction. They are deeply symbolic means of protest in a region that has little or no tolerance for dissent.
Ben Ali ruled with an iron fist for 23 years. Similarly authoritarian rulers across much of the Arab world have been in power as long or longer, like Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, in power since 1969; Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, in office since 1981; and Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled that impoverished nation since he seized power more than 30 years ago.
The stunning collapse of the Tunisian leader drew a litany of calls for change elsewhere in the Arab world, but activists faced the reality of vast security forces heavily vested in the status quo backing hard-line regimes ready to crack down on dissent.
Self-immolation as a method of protest is uncommon in the Arab world, where many associate it with protesters in the Far East or the Indian subcontinent. But Egyptian women in rural or poor urban areas have been known to set themselves on fire to protest violent husbands, abusive parents or an unwanted suitor.
Suicide is prohibited by Islam and on Tuesday, the Cairo-based Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's premier institution of learning, issued a statement stating that the faith "unequivocally does not sanction suicide, regardless of whether it's an expression of hardship, protest or anger."
Frustration and despair does seem to have been the motivating factor in the Egyptian cases.
Lawyer Mohammed Farouq el-Sayed set himself alight outside the prime minister's office Tuesday, possibly, speculate police, because security forces have been unable to find his long missing teenage daughter. He was rushed to hospital with light burns.
A second man, identified as retired accountant Sayed Ali Sayed, 65, attempted to do the same thing outside the nearby parliament building but was stopped by guards. There was no word on his motive.
Their actions follow those of Abdu Abdel-Moneim Hamadah, who set himself on fire Monday, again outside the parliament, to protest the authorities' denying him cheap subsidized bread to resell to patrons of his small restaurant east of Cairo. He survived with burns to his neck, face and legs.
The four self-immolations in Egypt came at a time of tensions over the economic hardships endured by many Egyptians. Many see the ambitious economic reforms introduced by the government over the past decade to be only benefiting a small clique of rich businessmen linked to the Mubarak regime.
The events in Tunisia and the attempted self-immolations may be unnerving authorities in Egypt.
A front page article in Tuesday's Al-Ahram, the state-owned flagship daily, reminded readers that Mubarak, 82, was keen to lighten the burden on the country's poor and ensure that the benefits of reform reach everyone.
In the absence of any public comment from Mubarak on the Tunisian uprising, the Al-Ahram article appears to be an attempt to reassure Egyptians at a time when critics are drawing parallels between Ben Ali and the Egyptian leader.
Nearly half of Egypt's estimated 80 million people live below or just above the poverty line set by the United Nations at $2 a day. The widespread poverty presents a potential threat to stability, along with the absence of any meaningful political reform.
Bahey Eddin Hassan, head of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, said the growing number of people setting themselves on fire was an indication that Egyptians were beginning to think they can emulate the Tunisian experience in their country.
"The reality is that people see their rulers as the ones responsible for their economic setbacks. People think the Tunisian recipe could work in Egypt since they have tried everything else and nothing worked," he said.
Associated Press reporter Maggie Michael contributed to this report.