Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Negligence of the Egyptian State Leads to Deaths, Crises & Catastrophes

Too Little Too Late: the Egyptian State’s Management of Crises

Egypt has recently witnessed three major incidents which attested to the fact that the state moves into action only after catastrophe has struck; as opposed to seeking to avert the catastrophe before it strikes.

The Shoura Council Fire

On August 19 a massive fire raged through the upper house of parliament, the Shoura (Consultative) Council. This fire was attributed to an electrical short circuit and led to the destruction of the parliamentary archive room along with several conference halls. Some opposition MPs have claimed that this fire was a premeditated act which aimed at destroying the parliamentary archives, yet the ruling authorities have refuted this claim and argued that all the archives were electronically backed-up.

Built in the 1860s, much of this historic building’s interiors were constructed from wood and thus the fire spread quickly throughout. The building lacked an automatic sprinkler-system or any other effective fire-control devices. Tens of fire trucks and ambulances were deployed around this inferno only after the flames were burning out of control. Sometime later two helicopters were sent in to douse the flames with huge buckets of water which they collected from the nearby Nile River.

According to eyewitness accounts tens of fire trucks had been deployed to extinguish this fire. However, according to these same eyewitnesses, and to live images being screened by the different satellite news channels – only three of these trucks were actively involved in fighting the fire. Apparently there were technical difficulties with the fire hydrants or the water supply. These three fire trucks were clearly struggling to put-out the flames for well over eight hours - from around 3 PM until around 12 AM. It is ironic that the state usually deploys a similar number of fire trucks and water canons (which are fully functional) around the streets of downtown Cairo in preparation for any peaceful street protests.

In any case, the massive fire in the Shoura Council led to the hospitalization of at least thirteen employees and firefighters who had suffered smoke inhalation and minor burns; fortunately no deaths were reported. Damages and reparations are estimated to cost the state several million pounds (over 150 million Egyptian Pounds according to some unverified reports.) The President of the Shoura Council, Safwat El Sherif, announced that the damaged building would be repaired and restored by November.

The Deadly Rockslide in El Doweiqa

Deadly and disastrous rockslides have occurred around southern Cairo’s Moqattam Cliffs since the Year 1968. Large chunks of these cliffs have collapsed on local slum dwellers - in December 1993, January 1994, and again in 2002 - claiming tens of lives, injuring a multitude of others, destroying numerous homes and workshops, and leaving hundreds more homeless. Geologists have been warning of further collapses and landslides around this same area ever since the Year 1993, yet these warnings have fallen on deaf ears. At the base of the El Moqattam Cliffs is a massive shantytown called Manshiyet Nasser; it is the impoverished residents of these informal housing quarters who have always faced the greatest risk of losing their lives and livelihoods as a result of rockslides.

Disaster struck Manshiyet Nasser once again, on September 6, 2008 – specifically in the area of El Doweiqa. Some rocks and boulders came crumbling down onto the homes of local residents at around eight in the morning. A few minutes later a huge chunk of the cliff, weighing an estimated 70 tons, crashed down upon the buildings and flimsy huts that lay beneath.

The official explanation for this collapse is that unregulated waste water/sewage seeped through the rocks of El Moqqatam and led to the expansion of cracks in the cliffs, which eventually crumbled and crashed down below. The state responded by dispatching hundreds, if not thousands, of troops from the Central Security Forces to cordon the site of the collapse. These black-clad riot police forces stood by idly, overlooking the scene of the disaster. It was as if they had been sent-in to twiddle their fingers and to work on their suntans. As for the rescue workers they came into action later in the day.

Desperate family members broke through the security cordon and starting digging with their bare hands in attempts to rescue survivors trapped underneath the rubble. Tens of local residents were pulled out alive, while hundreds of others remained trapped beneath tons of rock. Locals interviewed on September 7 said that the rescue effort was slow and “ineffective.” One local resident, Ali Mohammad Ibrahim, further criticized the rescue workers’ efforts, he said that it was “the residents who were manually doing most of the rescue work.” Ibrahim was extremely distressed and angry - for his wife and three daughters were trapped underneath the rubble. He blamed the local authorities and the Egyptian government for the disaster, and shouted: “I just want them to retrieve their corpses so that I could give them a proper burial.”

The number of corpses recovered from this rockslide is said to be 107. The real figure could be much higher, however – especially given the reports that over two hundred bodies remain unaccounted for beneath the rubble. Nearly three weeks later the stench of corpses still lingered in the air around the site of the disaster.

In light of this catastrophe the Egyptian state sought to remedy the situation by offering token monetary compensations to the family members of the deceased (LE 5,000 per dead body) and for the injured (LE 1,000.) Furthermore, according to the Governorate of Cairo, the state has relocated over 860 local families to the Suzanne Mubarak Housing Project in El Doweiqa. The authorities moved to evacuate and demolish all homes and huts in a perimeter of 100-150 meters from the base of the cliffs in El Doweiqa in an attempt to keep the residents from re-inhabiting these hazardous quarters. The state has also established a 500 million pound “Fund for the Development of Informal Housing Quarters.”

However, many of El Doweiqa’s residents who were living hazardously close to the cliffs were not given the opportunity to relocate to the Suzanne Mubarak Housing Project. Aida Abdel Fattah lives with five other family members in a one-room apartment whose walls were fractured during the last rockslide. She pointed to several large cracks running from the foundation of the room to its ceiling. She said that “this apartment is going to collapse under its own weight” adding that “we are afraid to sleep indoors; we fear that the roof and walls will cave-in on us. So we sleep outdoors, but the stench of corpses from the rubble beside us is very disturbing.” Aida’s immediate neighbors also had their homes damaged on September the 6th; they too displayed how their walls and ceilings were dangerously fractured. Aida went on to say that “we want to be relocated to the Suzanne Mubarak Project, as do my neighbors. We petitioned officials at the Cairo Governorate to have us relocated there, but they did nothing.”

On September the 23rd and the 25th further rockslides took place in El Doweiqa destroying several homes and injuring tens of residents. Following warnings of imminent rockslides in the nearby slums of Establ Antar and Ezbet Khairallah many of its inhabitants were forcibly ordered to evacuate their homes - prior to demolition. Tens of families were relocated to the distant satellite the Sixth of October, over twenty kilometers away from their old homes and their livelihoods.

Manal El Tibi, the Director of the (independent) Egyptian Center for Housing Rights believes that there was much the state could have done to avert the catastrophe in El Doweiqa. “Ever since the mid 1990s geologists have repeatedly warned the authorities as to the perilous situation of housing quarters around El Moqattam. Many measures should have been taken ahead of hand, including the construction of protective barriers around the edges and base of the cliff. More importantly, the residents of El Doweiqa should have been relocated to the Suzanne Mubarak Housing Project since last February – when 4,000 residential units were constructed and ready for use.”

El Tibi added that “it is necessary to clear away all those residential quarters and industries located around and on top of the cliffs. The entirety of El Doweiqa should be relocated – especially given that new rockslides and collapses are expected in the neighboring areas of Khalf El Khazzan and El Herafiyeen.”

Regarding the new housing units to which El Doweiqa’s residents have been relocated, El Tibi said that “there are plenty of problems associated with these replacement housing schemes. In the Suzanne Mubarak Housing Project the new residents have to pay a mortgage of LE 83/month; on average the monthly income of these locals is LE 150. It is very difficult for these residents to pay more than half of their monthly incomes on mortgage. In any case, those who cannot pay their mortgages are threatened with eviction from the Suzanne Mubarak Project.”

As for the state’s “Fund for the Development of Informal Housing Quarters” El Tibi commented: “It’s a joke. They’ve allocated 500 million pounds for the development of fifty different informal housing quarters. Foreign donors from Abu Dhabi and Germany have pledged US$ 200 million for the development and relocation of El Doweiqa. The Egyptian government’s 500 million pound fund is insufficient for the development of El Doweiqa, let alone for the development of fifty informal housing quarters.”

The Burning of the Egyptian National Theater

On September 27 an electrical fire burned through much of central Cairo’s National Theater – including its main hall. The Egyptian National Theater is a classic cultural landmark, and has been so ever since the 1930s. The fire was extinguished within approximately four hours and fortunately no casualties were reported, although damages and reparations are expected to cost the Ministry of Culture millions of pounds.

This fire brings back memories of the tragic Beni Suef Theater Fire of September 2005 - in which 46 people died. Both of these theaters were administered by the Ministry of Culture. Negligence and lack of safety measures were at the root of the Beni Suef Theater Fire, just as they are at the root of the Egyptian National Theater Fire, three years later.

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