RABAT, Morocco — Five unemployed Moroccan men set themselves on fire in the capital Rabat as part of widespread demonstrations in the country over the lack of jobs, especially for university graduates, a rights activist said Thursday. Three were burned badly enough to be hospitalized.
Once rare, self-immolation became a tactic of protest in the Middle East and North Africa ever since a vegetable seller in Tunisia set himself on fire in December 2010 to protest police harassment, setting off an uprising that toppled the government and sparked similar movements elsewhere in the region.
The Moroccans were part of the "unemployed graduates" movement, a loose collections of associations across the country filled with millions of university graduates demanding jobs. The demonstrations are often violently dispersed by police and in some towns and cities have resulted in sustained clashes.
While the official unemployment rate is only 9.1 percent nationally, it rises to around 16 percent for graduates.
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.
Around 160 members of the movement have been occupying an administrative building of the Ministry of Higher Education for the past two weeks in Rabat as part of their protest. Supporters would bring them food until two days ago when security forces stopped them.
"The authorities prevented them from receiving food and water, so five people went outside to get food and threatened to set themselves on fire if they were stopped," said Youssef al-Rissouni of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights.
Of the three who were hospitalized, two were in serious condition, while the other two just had their clothing singed, he added.
A video published by the group online shows a crowd tossing bread over the heads of police towards a building. Several young men on the building then douse themselves with a liquid and jump down and begin collecting the bread.
When riot police armed with truncheons move to stop them, at least two of the men burst into flames and begin running around wildly before they are surrounded by supporters and the flames apparently smothered.
Photos afterwards showed men with large sections of their skin burned. The online newspaper Goud reported that two of the men had second degree burns and were going to be sent to the Casablanca burn unit.
While the Moroccan economy has posted steady growth rates for the last several years of around 4 to 5 percent, it has been unable create enough jobs for the growing numbers of young people entering the work force every year.
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. Last week, four more people set themselves on fire in Tunisia, including a father of three who died from his burns.
As Morocco's new government announced its economic plan Thursday, parliament was picketed by at least 1,000 unemployed graduates demanding jobs.
Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane's plan called for increased training programs and some government jobs to absorb the unemployed graduates, but will mainly rely on the private sector to create the necessary employment.