An Egyptian man apparently inspired by events in Tunisia set himself on fire Tuesday outside the prime minister's office in central Cairo — the second such incident in the capital in as many days and the latest in a series of self-immolations across three nations, security officials said.
They said the fire engulfing the man, identified as lawyer Mohammed Farouq Mohammed el-Sayed, was quickly extinguished. Initial reports said he was protesting what he claimed to be the failure of police to find his long missing teenage daughter, the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
Tuesday's incident comes one day after protesters in Mauritania and Algeria set themselves alight in apparent attempts to copycat the fatal self-immolation of a Tunisian man. That event helped inspire the protests that toppled Tunisia's authoritarian president.
It also follows the self-immolation of an Egyptian man on Monday, who set himself on fire outside Egypt's parliament to protest the authorities' denying him cheap subsidized bread to resell to patrons of his small restaurant east of Cairo. The typical Egyptian flatbread sells for the equivalent of 1 US cent apiece, but restaurant owners must pay five times that much. The man survived with burns to his neck, face and legs.
While isolated, the incidents in Egypt, Mauritania and Algeria reflect the growing despair among the public of many Arab regimes resisting reform. They are deeply symbolic means of protest in a region that has little or no tolerance for dissent.
It was the self-immolation of a 26-year-old unemployed man in Tunisia last month that sparked the tidal wave of protests that toppled President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on Friday.
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 than Ben Ali, 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 and hard-line regimes that crack down on dissent.
The men who have set themselves alight in recent days appeared to be inspired by the self-immolation of Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi, a university graduate whose fruits and vegetables stand was confiscated by police because he had no permit. His death touched a nerve with educated, unemployed youths in the North African country, prompting the mass protests that toppled Ben Ali.
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.
"It is clear that Tunisia and its events had an impact on Egypt as well as Algeria," said veteran Egyptian columnist Salama Ahmed Salama. The attempted self-immolation in Cairo on Monday, he added, will be a "worrying element to the government."
But Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit ruled out the possibility that Tunisia's political uprising will spread.
"This is pure nonsense," he told reporters over the weekend. "Those who are promoting fantasies and trying to ignite the situation will not achieve their goals and will only harm themselves."