RABAT, Morocco – A 27-year-old Moroccan who set himself on fire to protest his unemployment died from his burns Tuesday in a Casablanca hospital, his wife said.
Abdelwahab Zaydoun was part of a group of unemployed graduates who occupied an Education Ministry building in Rabat, the Moroccan capital, to protest their unemployment and threatened to set themselves fire Wednesday when police didn’t let supporters deliver them food.
“I saw him in the morgue, he is dead and I accuse the makhzen of killing him,” Amina Naddam, 25, told The Associated Press by telephone from the hospital, referring to the ruling elite that many say controls the kingdom.
“I ask the human rights organizations for help in opening an investigation into whoever forbade the bread from going to the protesters,” she added, weeping into the telephone.
Once rare, self-immolation has become a tactic of protest across North Africa ever since a vegetable seller in Tunisia set himself on fire in December 2010, setting off an uprising that toppled the government.
The Moroccans were part of the “unemployed graduates” movement representing millions of university graduates demanding jobs. While Morocco’s official unemployment rate is only 9.1 per cent, it rises to around 16 per cent for graduates.
The North African kingdom of 32 million is home to the largest income inequalities in the Arab world. It has 8.5 million people in poverty and ranks 130 out of 186 on the U.N.’s human development index, but still hosts international stars for concerts and has built a huge new mall with luxury stores near Casablanca.
Zaydoun, who had a master’s degree in law, was from the southern coastal town of Essaouira but moved to near Rabat to take part in the protests, his wife said.
After the activists had occupied the ministry building for two weeks, security surrounded them and prevented colleagues from bringing them food. In a video last week, supporters threw bread over the heads of security while activists doused themselves with liquid and ran to get the bread. Zaydoun was seen running to the bread, throwing it back to the building before being beaten by police. When a colleague burst into flames, he ran over to help, only to catch fire himself.
The state news agency confirmed his death, saying he had third-degree burns across 50 per cent of his body. The other activist in the hospital had burns across his face and hands but was in good condition.
Security at the hospital was heavy, according to activist Abdallah Kacimi.
“It is surrounded as though they are preparing for a war,” he said.
On Thursday, the government elected in November presented its new plan to parliament with a focus on job creation, education and improving health care. The Islamist-led government promised to create 200,000 new jobs a year through public and private investment.
Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane’s plan to bring unemployment down to 8 per cent called for increased training programs and some government jobs to absorb the unemployed graduates, but will mainly rely on the private sector.
While the Moroccan economy has posted steady growth rates for the last several years of around 4 to 5 per cent, it has been unable create enough jobs for the growing numbers of young people entering the work force.
The self-immolation of Tunisia’s Mohammed Bouazizi in the hardscrabble town of Sidi Bouzid in December 2010 became the symbol of the depths of despair to which the poor of North Africa and the Middle East have sunk. Two weeks ago, four more people set themselves on fire in Tunisia, including a father of three who died from his burns.