tunisia - Reuters - January 26 2011
Anti-government protesters in Cairo last week raising the Tunisian flag. Photo by Reuters
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Mohamed Bouazizi, the 26-year-old man who doused himself with gasoline last month in Tunisia and ignited the entire nation, has already become the martyred hero of the Tunisian revolution. The flames of the blaze have now begun searing the fringes of other Arab countries, notably Egypt, which so far has experienced eight attempted suicides "for economic reasons" and has given rise to fears that the self-immolation phenomenon will become fashionable.

At first, the government hastened to described those attempting suicide as feeble-minded, or people suffering from psychological problems. So the opposition Cairo daily El Shorouk examined the claim and the psychological state of Egypt's citizens.

The newspaper's editors were amazed at the result. Psychologist Dr. Halil Fadel, who was interviewed on the subject, informed the Egyptian public that "80 percent of Egyptian citizens suffer from psychological illnesses or disturbances with varying degrees of severity, and the rate of suicide among regular citizens is much higher than among those who are ill."

However, the psychologist explained, the citizens of Egypt have a unique reason for taking their own lives: "The soul of an Egyptian is most dear to him and his sense of being a Pharaoh is unequalled in other nations."

Fadel believes Egyptians have feelings of deep-seated honor which come up against severe degradation from the authorities and especially the police, giving them "no way out of the feeling of humiliation other than by taking [their] life."

The Egyptians who commit suicide, the psychologist said, believe that through their suicide they will be able to achieve the status of a hero.

Honor or heroism, degradation or psychological tension, the threat of suicide has become a political and social weapon in Egypt. Thus, for example, dozens of striking textile workers in Menoufia warned that they would set themselves on fire unless their demands for raises were met and the threat of closing their factory was lifted.

The Egyptian authorities are not satisfied merely with scientific explanations of the suicide phenomenon. When Facebook sites called for the "day of wrath" that took place yesterday, and with the approach of the presidential elections to be held in September, the government hastened to take steps to reduce tensions. A decision was made to increase the number of shops that distribute subsidized bread and to suspend the plan to sell gas balloons on the basis of quotas per family.

These may appear to be negligible steps in the face of the citizens' strong dissatisfaction but they are the very things that in the past led Egyptian citizens to take to the streets, to chant slogans against corruption and to demand the government take responsibility for the suffering it causes.

Pouring gas to douse the flames

A year ago, a tremendous crisis took place in Egypt on account of the shortage of gas balloons; the price of gas skyrocketed from four Egyptian pounds per balloon - the official government price - to about 60 pounds. The demonstrations next to gas distribution sites threatened to become a real political threat. The government then decided to issue a quota for every family and to fix a fee for the first balloon and a higher fee for using another balloon.

This decision, which was due to be put into effect soon, once again gave rise to a public outcry. The riots in Tunisia, which led the Egyptians to believe this could similarly get out of hand, also served to eclipse any attention the gas protests might have drawn.

Another instruction was issued directing government officials at all levels to deal with citizens' requests with speed and efficiency, to meet with the complainants and to put down demonstrations but without the use of force.

Newspaper editors also report that in recent days, senior officials of the ruling party have requested they refrain from praising Gamal Mubarak, the president's son and heir apparent, and to soften their reports about the events in Tunisia while stressing the differences between the two countries and explaining that what happened in Tunisia cannot happen in Egypt.

Religious institutions affiliated with the government were instructed by the minister of religious endowments, Mahmoud Hamdy Zakzouk, to direct preachers to condemn the suicide and to warn the worshipers that anyone committing suicide, no matter what the reason, would go to Hell, and also to remind them that most of those who go to Heaven are poor.

Dr. Youssef Boutros-Ghali, the Egyptian Finance Minister, explained last week that the substantive difference between Egypt and Tunisia was that some 10 percent of Egypt's gross national product went to help the poor and that Egypt's economy was based on a free market and on the business sector, while in Tunisia the public paid for a rise in prices.

This month, the government in Cairo is due to approve a comprehensive loan plan with the impressive title of "Fulfill your dreams," making it possible for government officials to take loans on very easy terms from the banks, whether to raise their standard of living, to return debts or to open small businesses.

The plan calls for a low interest rate of 5.7 percent per year and the possibility of returning the money over a five- to seven-year period. The amount returned would not constitute more than one third of the officials monthly wages and if the person who takes the loan is fired or quits, he will not be required to return the loan and it will be repaid from a special fund to be set up by the government.

The assessment is that some six million civil servants will receive the loans and that some 15 billion Egyptian pounds will be distributed to them over a two-year period. Meanwhile the plan seems to promise success and some 100,000 officials have already signed up for the loans.

Will this plan help to block the Tunisia effect? "The problem in Egypt is not merely poverty and unemployment. We still have not heard about a plan to block the corruption or about canceling emergency rule," wrote one Egyptian analyst.

In those respects, however, it is unlikely that the regime in Egypt will be able to convince the citizens that there is a difference between Egypt and Tunisia.