Cairo — Mohammed Bouazizi, the 26-year old Tunisian whose act of self-immolation led to an unprecedented popular revolution in Tunisia, is quickly turning into a symbol for disgruntled Arab youths angry at their autocratic rulers and poor economic conditions – a development that Arab leaders in the region are clearly taking note of.
On Tuesday a third Egyptian who set himself ablaze in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria to protest unemployment died at hospital. This came after a man set himself alight outside the Cabinet offices in downtown Cairo, and another set himself on fire Monday to protest his inability to obtain subsidised bread.
Egypt, a country of 85 million people, has implemented an economic programme, in agreement with the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), that includes lowering subsidies for staple foods and energy. The programme has deprived millions of Egyptians of inexpensive bread and pushed prices upwards for several other food items. As a result protests over salaries and lack of benefits have rocked the country over the past five years.
Other Western-backed Arab rulers – under prodding from Western economic institutions – are implementing similar programmes that support corporations and business people, who promise investments and development, at the expense of the poor.
In Algeria, the second county after Tunisia that saw popular street protests against housing shortages, corruption and unemployment, four people committed the same self-immolation act as Bouazizi. At least one person has died so far.
In Mauritania, where fifty percent of the population of 3.5 million live under the poverty line of 2 dollars a day, one man was hospitalised after setting himself on fire outside the presidential palace Sunday.
During a ministerial meeting ahead of an Arab Economic Summit in Sharm El- Sheikh later this week, Arab League Secretary General Amre Moussa appealed to rich Arab nations – mostly oil-producing countries – to help assist other Arab countries that are "still in need of development".
The events in Tunisia and the region have forced several autocratic Arab rulers to take note of their peoples’ rising frustrations with their conditions.
In Jordan, King Abdullah II, a key ally of the U.S. and Israel who came to rule with Western backing after the death of his father King Hussein in 1999, ordered new measures to lower food prices and create more jobs for the country’s six million people.
The government announced an unprecedented 225 million dollars worth of cuts in fuel and staple food prices. Nonetheless, Jordanians have protested against rampant unemployment and high food prices in dozens of towns and cities. The country is suffering record deficit and a high unemployment rate.
In Syria, the state-run media reported Tuesday that the government of President Bashar Al-Assad would hand out direct financial support of about 11.00 dollars a month to some 415,000 families.
After the Tunisia events, the ruling Baath Party in Damascus said it would also reverse its plans to cut subsidies and that it would increase its food subsidies to combat high prices. The government also directed farmers to plant more wheat – a staple food item – the Syrian media said.
Kuwait plans to give free food rations to all Kuwaitis at a cost of 818 million dollars, as well as a one-time cash grant to every Kuwaiti of 3,561 dollars. These measures would take effect Feb. 1.
In Egypt – the largest Arab nation in terms of population, which has also witnessed dozens of labour protests and pay issues for the past five years – the government, which came to office in 2005, said the country’s subsides were still firmly in place. Local media reported that President Hosni Mubarak, the country’s ruler since 1981, ordered ministers to scale back any talk of cutting energy or bread subsidies.
Speaking ahead of the Arab Economic Summit, Egyptian Trade Minister Rachid Mohamed Rachid said that the country’s subsidy system was working and that it shielded consumers in Egypt from the 50 percent increase in world food prices.
He, however, admitted that the Tunisian crisis would act as an accelerator to economic cooperation and integration between Arab states, Al-Ahram reported Tuesday.
In Mauritania, one of the region’s least developed nations, the government announced measures to open 600 stores to sell subsidised rice, sugar, cooking oil and wheat flour. The government also said that it was taking measures to "increase employment opportunities".
Opposition leaders belittled the measures and said they were not enough to fight "the country’s deliberate starvation, absurd high prices and corruption", the Mauritanian News Agency reported.
In Algeria, which shares borders and history of French occupation with Tunisia, the government was reportedly studying a measure to put a cap on food prices and impose price restrictions to ease two weeks of violent protests that coincided with the Tunisian unrest.
Algerians are complaining of sugar, oil and flour prices despite a surplus in the government budget of 14.8 billion dollars compared to 4.6 billion a year before. Oil prices rose this year helping boost the country’s revenue.
All across the Arab region, government backers are quick to assert that Tunisia is an exceptional case that cannot be repeated in other Arab countries.
"We are not all angry against the regime like Tunisians were," said Abdelmonem Saeed, chairman of Al-Ahram, a Cairo-based government- managed foundation that runs several publications.
"Egypt is 84 million people when Tunisia was only 10 million so you’ll find here parts that are for the regime and others that may be against it. Lots of people express their opinions through different channels here," Saeed said in an interview with Dream TV. "We are not the same."