On Sunday, an Egyptian man jumped on the subway tracks as the train approached and died on the spot. Last month, a man and a girl did the same, yet survived, but in the couple of months before the five that made the attempt succeeded. Subway suicides, while the most covered by the media, are by no means the only ones. In March, a young man was about to jump off the Cheops pyramid, the largest of the three, but the police managed to force him down.
In April, six suicide cases were reported in the Giza governorate and 10 in Alexandria, all the result of family issues and mostly through hanging. In June, a man jumped to his death off the Cairo Tower in the eighth incident of its kind. Added to this are numerous cases across the country, many of which attributed to financial hardships. Failure to score high grades in an exam, secure a job, or marry a beloved are also listed among the reasons for many suicides. The real reasons, however, seem more complicated and the alarming rise in numbers requires a deeper look into the phenomenon.
According to professor of political sociology Ammar Ali Hassan, suicide can in many cases be a form of protest and cited the example of the self-immolation incident that started the revolution in Tunisia in late 2010. “This can be particularly applied to suicides at subway stations since they are accompanied by a statement about the conditions that drove those persons to choose death over life and is witnessed by dozens of people, therefore stands a better chance at being covered by media outlets and social networking websites,” he said.
Curbing the phenomenon
Hassan explained that suicide in the subway is a form of indictment for whichever entity the person blames for his/her suffering. “This entity can be society, the government…etc.” Hassan added that suicide is usually politicized even if the reasons are not political. “For example, pro-Muslim Brotherhood media outlets would always see every suicide case as proof of the failure of the regime to provide the people with a decent life.” x
Sociologist Hani Sabri also linked suicide to the Arab Spring since he argued that suicide was romanticized by the Tunisian revolution and the uprisings that followed it. “Mohamed Bouazizi was almost canonized since his suicide was seen as a form of courage, yet suicide is actually an act of weakness,” he said. That is why, Sabri argued, Egyptians commit suicide in public places so that they can attract attention. “It became more of a show that is driven by a desire for imitation.”
Professor of psychiatry Mohamed Taha said suicide can be seasonal and referred in particular to the general secondary comprehensive exams, the Egyptian equivalent to the baccalaureate, based on which university admission is determined. “Baccalaureate students feel that their entire future relies on the grade they get in those exams and parents keep putting pressure on their children to get the highest grades,” he said. “Some cannot take this pressure or cannot deal with their failure to get the desired grade so they commit suicide.”
According to a report issued by the Ministry of Health and Population, 30% of baccalaureate students suffer from psychological problems and 21.5% of them consider suicide.
Legal expert Adel Amer, who admitted that current suicide rates are alarming, argued that phenomenon can be attributed to certain problems specific to the Egyptian society. “Patriarchy is among the main reasons that drive females to commit suicide. Due to exposure to other cultures and human rights organizations, women have become aware of their rights and struggle to get them, but when they clash with male dominance, their despair can lead them to suicide,” he wrote. The same applies, Amer added, to early marriages where women are forced into responsibilities they are not ready for.
“Reasons that apply to both males and females include economic conditions and strict control over youths by their families,” he noted. “When people are incapable of dealing with the pressure and when their suffering increases, they can end their lives.” Amer explained that such hardships lead to the development of several psychological problems including depression, anxiety, isolationism, and paranoia, which at certain levels, can lead to suicide. “Political frustration also contributes to feelings of despair.”
Official reaction to the growing number of suicides in subway stations was quite peculiar. The National Authority for Tunnels, which manages the Cairo underground, called upon those who want to commit suicide to stay away from the trains “so that service is not disrupted.”
Director of the National Authority for Tunnels Ali Fadali called suicides “irresponsible acts” and argued that nothing can be done about them except through installing automatic barriers that only open when the train stops. “However, this solution is extremely costly,” he said. “We will be spending money because of people who want to die not those who want to live.” Fadali added that suicidal people will “commit suicide anyway,” hence nothing can stop them. “If they can’t kill themselves in the subway station, they’ll go to the train station and if not, then the Cairo Tower and so on.”
Psychologist Ibrahim Magdi, on the other hand, suggested establishing in subway stations what he termed “opening-up kiosks” where suicidal people can speak to a specialist that would talk them into retracting. The proposal was seen by many as unpractical and incapable of curbing the phenomenon.
Psychological expert Mohamed Hani said that suicidal people are determined to take their lives and opening up would never discourage them as long as the actual problem is not addressed. “People who decide to commit suicide under train wheels do so because it is a quick and guaranteed way, which means they are determined to succeed,” he said. Hani added that those people had usually reached the point of no return and are no longer capable of coping. “Therefore, those people are no longer capable of listening to reason to reconsider their decision.”