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Self-immolation protests spread

Protesters set themselves on fire in Egypt, Mauritania and Algeria on Monday in apparent copycat self-immolation attempts inspired by the act that helped trigger a popular uprising in Tunisia.

The incidents, while isolated, 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 last week.

Ben Ali ruled with an iron fist for 23 years, time spent in the company of similarly authoritarian rulers across much of the Arab world such as 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.

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 on fire in recent days appeared to be inspired by the self-immolation of Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi, a university graduate whose fruits and vegetables stand at a market 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.

As a method of protest, self-immolation is uncommon in the Arab world, where many associate it with protesters in the Far East or the Indian subcontinent.

Tunisia, meanwhile, took a step toward democracy and reconciliation Monday, promising to free political prisoners and opening its government to opposition forces long shut out of power -- but the old guard held on to the key posts, angering protesters.

Demonstrators carrying signs reading "GET OUT!" demanded that the former ruling party be banished altogether -- a sign that more troubles lie ahead for the new unity government as security forces struggle to contain violent reprisals, shootings and lootings three days after Ben Ali fled under pressure from the streets.

"We're afraid that the president has left, but the powers-that-be remain," said Hylel Belhassen, 51, an insurance salesman. Even before the new government was announced Monday, security forces fired tear gas to repel demonstrators who see the change of power as Tunisia's first real chance at democracy.

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi offered a number of concessions to try to appease Ben Ali's critics, while maintaining the ruling party's dominance of government and public posts across the country.

Ghannouchi, a longtime Ben Ali ally who has been premier since 1999, retained his post, as did the current ministers of defense, interior and foreign affairs. The country is being run by interim President Fouad Mebazaa, the former speaker of the lower house of parliament and a veteran of Tunisia's ruling party.

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