On world suicide prevention day, a story of oppression and despair in Egypt

“Suicide of a worker in Salam for failing to provide for his children.”
“Worker hangs himself in Mansoura due to financial crisis.”
“Worker hangs himself in Helwan due to financial and psychological crisis.”

Each of these headlines appeared on the inside pages of daily Cairo newspapers over the past three months, with each story giving remarkably similar details of deaths in scattered locations.

Egypt’s suicide rate has been rising over the past 10 years. In its 2009 “Egypt in Numbers” report, the state statistics agency CAPMAS noted that 104,000 people attempted suicide that year — an 8,000-person increase. Of those attempts, 5,000 were successful.

Then in 2010, at least 5 out of every 1,000 Egyptians attempted suicide, according to CAPMAS statistics. That rate jumped by four times in the year following the revolution.

Numbers issued by the Interior Ministry tell a drastically different story, however. In its 2011 “Public Security Report,” the ministry only cited 310 cases of attempted or successful suicides for that year.

The disconnect between anecdotal accounts in local news reports and dramatically varying statistics provided by different state bodies reveals how difficult it is to both understand and address the problem of suicide in Egypt — a problem that seems to be intertwined with root issues of economic distress and political oppression.

Government failure

The Interior Ministry report claimed that in 2011, most suicides — 25 percent — happened in Cairo. Assiut was next in line, with 15 percent of the total number of cases occurring in that governorate. According to reports by the Cabinet-affiliated Social Fund for Development, Assiut is the poorest governorate in Egypt.

The case of Assiut shows that the Egyptian government is “carelessly” addressing the issue of suicide, claimed a study by researchers Wafaa Abdel Moneim, Heba Yassa and Safaa George that was published in the January 2011 issue of the Egyptian Journal of Forensic Medicine. As another example of state carelessness, the researchers pointed out that by 2011, the government hadn’t provided suicide statistics to the World Health Organization (WHO) since 1987.

Governments in the Arab world tend to be very discrete when it comes to talking about suicide, their study said, with official figures typically being vastly lower than reality.

There are two likely reasons for this inaccuracy, according to the article. First, families tend not to report suicides for fear of social stigma and a religious prohibition. Second, governments fear that high suicide rates indicate deep social problems.

As such, the study argued that it’s misleading to claim that Egypt has a lower suicide rate than in the West.

Haram? Halal? Irrelevant

The — albeit inaccurately — low suicide rates in the Arab world have often been explained in religious terms. In Islam, there’s a firm injunction against taking one’s own life.

However, last Ramadan in Egypt testifies to a different reality. There were 15 attempted suicides in the holy month, including a married couple who threw themselves under the metro at the Cairo University station. The wife survived with major injuries, while the husband passed away.

All Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) consider suicide a rejection of the gift of life provided by the God, and a sign of disbelief in divine mercy and forgiveness. In Islam, the Quran prohibits suicide, though without specifying a punishment: “And do not kill yourselves. Surely, God is Most Merciful to you.” (Quran 4:29).

While the Quran itself doesn’t do so, Muslim scholars and authorities have been strict in criminalizing suicide, with some muftis going so far as to prohibit prayer for those who take their own lives.

However, unofficial data seems to suggest that such religious mandates do not act as a preventative measure to the extent that is commonly thought.

Suicide as protest

The suicide of Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Buazizi, which ignited the spark of the so-called Arab Spring, will remain vivid in the world’s memory.

But his was just one of the most recent in a long history of suicides that served to protest prevailing social and political conditions. In June 1963, for instance, Buddhist monk Thích Quang Duc famously lit himself on fire in protest against the policies of the president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem. Several other monks did the same, and the state responded with a brutal crackdown on monks and their families.

At least 75 percent of suicides worldwide occur in poor and middle-income countries, according to a 2014 report released by WHO. Countries that rank low on indicators of freedom and respect for human rights also have high suicide rates, according to studies by the WHO and international human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch.

For instance, in 2012 Russia had the 14th-highest suicide rate in the world, with 29,735 people taking their own lives in that year. In China, official reports indicate between 250,000 and 300,000 cases per year, although reports by local and international human rights observers claim that the true numbers are likely much higher.

Guinea, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Belarus, Hungary and Uganda also have some of the highest suicide rates in the world. Each of those countries ranks low on the freedom indexes produced by Transparency International, and are widely criticized for their human rights and corruption records.

These figures point back to the understanding of suicide that was proposed by Emile Durkheim, founder of modern sociology. Durkheim suggests that people are driven to take their own lives when society loses the ability to protect its individuals and organize affairs in a manner that makes them want to live.

Durkheim believes that a high suicide rate indicates that “something is wrong” in the social order, rejecting the idea that suicide is a result of mental disorder causing a failure to understand the act’s implications. On the contrary, for Durkheim, people who die by suicide are conscious of the act and aware of its consequences.

Finally, he concludes that in the abstract, suicide is essentially “a declaration of a position by an individual against a particular social situation.” He indicts oppressive societies for pushing their members toward suicide, calling an increased suicide rate “an indication of social disintegration.”

This would suggest that any attempts to prevent suicide must also be attentive to the prevailing social, economic and political conditions. 

September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day, organized by the International Association for Suicide Prevention and supported by the World Health Organization.

Omnia El Barbari 

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