x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Jobless protester's self-immolation a tragic symbol of Egypt's malaise

Echoes of Tunisia as jobless protester sets himself on fire.

CAIRO //Arafa Kamel's gesture was desperate, it was profoundly hopeless and it landed him in hospital - but it nevertheless struck a chord in an economically stagnant country.

Mr Kamel, 40, poured a flammable liquid over his body and set himself on fire in front of the presidential palace on Saturday.

Unemployed for four years after a dispute with his boss at an electricity company, he had travelled to Cairo from the southern city of Assiut in late June to put his case to the new citizens' complaint department established by the president, Mohammed Morsi.

Dozens go there each day to air grievances big and small: angry factory workers, the long-term unemployed, farmers whose crops have shrivelled from lack of water, families made destitute by a greedy landlord or the high cost of health care and education.

Mr Kamel had won a court order to get his job back, but was still refused by his employer. He attempted suicide after being "neglected" by the complaints department, his brother-in-law Abdel-Hafez Mahmoud said.

"He felt hopeless," Mr Mahmoud said in an interview yesterday evening, describing how Mr Kamel had sold his home and moved his wife and three children to a rental apartment after being fired. He set up a small grocery store, but the business failed.

Mr Kamel was listed in stable condition at a Cairo hospital yesterday, with burns over more than 50 per cent of his body.

Mr Mahmoud said that his brother-in-law had received a phone call from an aide in the office of the president, who asked him not to give any speeches about his act and promised that a job would be found for him when he recovered.

His action "highlights the very simple fact that people's real problems are unresolved, and some say, those problems have got worse," said Joseph Rizk, an activist and the founder of a public policy group called New Republic. "Ideology aside, people's actual problems are going to be their first priority."

Mr Kamel is not the first in the past two years to use self-destruction as a way of speaking to power. The uprising in Tunisia, which launched protests across the region, started in December 2010 with the self-immolation of a street trader capriciously stripped of his licence - and dignity - by a low-level bureaucrat. Several Egyptians set themselves on fire in the weeks after in front of the parliament building in Cairo.

What makes Mr Kamel's desperation stand out is that it is the first such act since Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president in February 2011.

It is a symptom of this second phase under way in Arab Spring countries, where dictatorial leaders were removed through popular uprisings. Left bare by the receding elation are the challenges of reforming economies that had been left to deteriorate for decades. Mubarak's reported billions have not been discovered and no quick cure-all for the country's problems is likely to be found.

"The fact that anyone feels that they have to do that is disastrous and shows we have a long way to go," said Omar Hamilton, a filmmaker in Cairo.

The goal was not for Egypt to get back to pre-January 25 economic levels, but to a degree where a wider swath of Egyptians were able to benefit from growth, he said.

"I think people began realising late last year that this will be a long-term process," he said. "Egypt has been 'on its feet' for hundreds of years. We don't want to be just getting by."

The response from Yasser Ali, the spokesman for the Egyptian presidency, will provide little hope for the thousands of Egyptians who have lodged official complaints.

"We regret strongly" the plight of Mr Kamel, Mr Ali said. "We established a centre for receiving complaints. There are hundreds of thousands of cases that are not solved due to the absence of a mechanism for dealing with such issues for many years. It is critical to resolve the complaints, but we need years to provide social justice for people."

It is burdens such as the one carried by Mr Kamel that are the real challenge for the new Egyptian government. Mr Morsi, backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, has proposed a Renaissance Project for Egypt that seeks to revive the economy through policies that make it easier for private businesses to grow.

Those are, however, long-term plans. Egypt needs to provide 700,000 jobs a year to keep up with its growing labour force. That does not include the 12.6 per cent of Egyptians who are actively seeking a job but cannot find one - people such as Mr Kamel. Even that official number from the ministry of finance is considered to be low by economists because so many people work in the informal sector, where data is not collected by the government.

bhope@thenational.ae

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