A seemingly unending series of fires has struck Egypt throughout the last two weeks, and are still ongoing even if tapering off. Fires erupted at places that appeared to have not much in common: Giza security directorate, the old but thriving trade districts of Rewaiei and Ghouriya in Cairo, the Cairo governorate building, three factories and timbre warehouses in Dumyat (Damietta), as well as other factories in the industrial areas of 6 October town.
Given that the huge fires in Rewaiei and Ghouriya devoured what is in the main part businesses and small industries that operate outside the formal economy, there is no accurate figure of the losses. Nevertheless, expert estimates place them at more than half-a-billion Egyptian pounds.
A state of public concern has prevailed. The public finds it hard to believe so many incidents of fires in such a short period of time are not connected; arson appears a viable cause. This would imply these incidents are terrorist acts and, since terrorism in Egypt is exclusively Islamist, the fires would indicate a qualitative shift in the terrorist attacks that regularly hit the country. Yet no organisation, group, or individual claimed responsibility for the fires, a move that would have naturally followed if they were terrorist acts. And no evidence has been found to point in that direction.
Egyptian business tycoon and founder of the political party al-Masriyeen al-Ahrar (The Free Egyptians) Naguib Sawiris ventured an opinion that it was the Muslim Brothers (MB) and their Islamist supporters who had set the fires. He publicised his opinion in the column he writes every week for the State-owned Cairo weekly Akhbar al-Youm. He admitted he had no solid evidence to his hypothesis and that he is no investigator; he had formed this opinion based on strong indications. The MB, he said, have a notorious history of terrorism and arson; he called to mind the more than 64 churches and Christian institutions all over Egypt that the MB set on fire on 14 August 2013 to avenge themselves on Egyptians for having overthrown the post-2011 Arab Spring Islamist rule. Mr Sawiris wrote that if we look for who benefits out of these fires, we find that the only beneficiaries are the MB who wish to destabilise Egypt. The MB reacted to Mr Sawiris’s hypothesis not by any attempt to refute his claim, but with a barrage of insults and obscenities which, he said, proved he was very close to if not had directly hit the truth.
Not terrorism; then what?
If the fires have nothing to do with terrorism, however, then what? It is no secret that people who set places on fire can be found out with great difficulty. The fires have worked to bleed the economy and almost impossibly overburden those who incurred losses, as well as the government. Are matters in Egypt under control? These questions have been lurking in the minds of Egyptian, and Watani took them to the experts.
There was a unanimous opinion that the fires erupted during a time when Egypt was undergoing an exceptionally hot, dry wave, and that—sadly—the country is notorious for substandard safety measures. Watani focused on the fires which were the most shocking and brought on the worst losses, in Rewaiei and Ghouriya.
“It is a disaster in the full sense of the word,” Ali Shukry, first Vice-Chairman of the Cairo Chamber of Commerce, says alluding to the Rewaiei fire. “A preliminary estimate of the losses places them at some EGP400 million. The figure of EGP40 million pronounced by Cairo Governorate appears to take into account only the merchandise lost, but disregards the much worse catastrophe that has hit the entire Rewaiei district. The fire and the copious amounts of water used to quench it have rendered many of the buildings and infrastructure near-collapse. The entire region will need careful restoration, and this will be at a hefty cost.”
Economic expert Mukhtar al-Sharif agrees that even though the losses cannot be accurately estimated, they are staggering. “I do not believe there is anyone in specific, whether from inside or outside the country, behind these fires,” Dr Sharif says. “The main cause, as I see it, is gross negligence. Places such as Rewaiei and Ghouriya, as well as many many other places in Egypt, are notorious for the absolute lack of industrial or civil safety measures. The workers in these sites are unaware of the dangers that constantly threaten them, and thus do nothing to protect themselves against any hazards. Not only are fire extinguishers almost unheard of, but the entire practice of producing, storing, and selling the goods is conducted in settings and methods that contradict all safety standards. The general attitude is that ‘it will be all right and no harm will occur’.
“The shops and warehouses are stacked into old, almost dilapidated buildings in very narrow alleys and streets hard to navigate by modern vehicles.”
Social and emotional loss
The fires have caused enormous losses in livelihoods, Dr Sharif says, and since Egypt already suffers from a huge budget deficit, the State will not be able to adequately compensate them. He believes that precise studies should be conducted in order to determine the cases most worthy of compensation.
Another economic expert, Diab Muhammad, is in perfect agreement with Dr Sharif. “The districts set on fire were overcrowded and narrow; they housed a lot of flammable materials and chemicals; and were furnished with no safety measures whatsoever. This made it difficult to extinguish the flames. The government should take all the necessary precautions to ensure such situations never recur.
“The losses are difficult to recover,” Dr Muhammad says, “and will definitely have a negative impact on the economy. Assets, buildings, equipment, production tools, and goods have all gone up in the flames. The losses also include the human element which has been hurt severely in terms of jobs and social and psychological trauma. This side of the aftermath of the fires is not to be overlooked.”
Watani asked Dr Sharif what he thought of the allegations by the vendors whose wares were lost in the fire that the government perpetrated these fires in order to rid the district of them. Dr Sharif’s answer was that such allegations were contemptible and stand to spread rumours that would work to sow discontent and destabilise the country at a time when we can ill afford that. The government, he said, already succeeded in ridding other places in Cairo and Alexandria of encroaching street vendors, using legal measures. It is absurd, he says, that it should resort to shooting itself in the foot by setting the place on fire.
Watani visited Rewaiei and Ghouriya…
“The State said it would pay compensation of EGP5,000 for the shop owners whose shops went up in flames,” Haj Mustafa Hassan, an owner of a shoe shop in al-Rewaiei, Attaba, told Watani. “But what is this to compensate for a ruined shop and losses in merchandise worth millions of Egyptian pounds?” he said in bitterness.
The massive fire had spread through al-Rewaiei market in the Cairo central district of Attaba after a series of smaller fires broke out on the night of Sunday 8 May, with flames burning till the early morning hours on Tuesday. More than 60 fire engines and ambulances, with the help of hundreds of local residents and workers, fought the blaze in the narrow streets of the neighbourhood for more than 24 hours. The fire had started at Andalus Hotel, which occupies the two top floors of a six-story building, and left three people dead and 91 injured.
According to Haj Mustafa, the Andalus Hotel building alone included goods estimated at billions of Egyptian pounds, since it housed a large number of makers of the ankle-length long-sleeved Arabian traditional gowns which they sell to Arab clients at very good profit; such gowns cost EGP1,500 a piece.
Another shop owner at Attaba, Ahmed Attallah, was angry. He complained: “Our livelihood has all been devoured by the fire. Our losses amount to more than EGP20 million.”
Haj Muhammad Khaled, owner of a leather-handbag shop and an eyewitness, complained that the fire-fighters arrived two hours after the flames had spread to every inch in the region. Some 50 plus fire-trucks came, but they were not able to navigate the too-narrow streets in the district; only two managed to put out the fires at the hotel and neighbouring buildings. It took the efforts of the military to put out the fire.
Haj Muhammad insisted that the fire fighting efforts were entirely incompetent; he criticised the use of water not foam to put out the fire. “The copious amount of water used has damaged the electrical network in the district, and caused several smaller fires to erupt because of electric short circuits. Besides, there is talk that the fire did not start owing to a short circuit, but because some highly inflammable powder had been sprinkled in the area.” Haj Muhammad may not be sufficiently well-informed, but his words reflect that misinformation has led to much anger among those whose small businesses have been damaged.
Omar Muhammad, owner of a tool shop, lamented: “The jobs here are now dead; all the workers who worked here are facing a death sentence to their livelihoods.” Muhammad told Watani that at least ten workers worked at every shop earning their salary on a daily basis, but now they have not even the money to go back to their home villages or towns. “They have no other means; they will have to beg!” he exclaimed.
“A great part of Egypt’s informal economy has been destroyed by the fires,” Attaba resident, Ibrahim Mustafa, said. The historic market is home to hundreds of small industrial workshops, artisans, garment depots, home, curtain and chandelier accessory stores, as well as street vendors selling affordable clothes and trinkets.
This vibrant market is frequented daily by thousands of shoppers seeking deals in retail goods and wholesale products.
“It is not reasonable that electric short circuits should cause two fires in one week in the same region,” Hamed Attiya, another Attaba vendor said. Mr Attiya was referring to a fire which erupted a week earlier in the district of Sednaoui near Attaba.
The buildings in Attaba and the surrounding area are very old and command very low rents. “Such successive fires,” Haj Mustafa said, “make us believe it is the building owners that put them ablaze in order to be granted license to demolish them and sell them at high prices or build high rises that would pay them a good return on investment.”
“We have all been scorched”
Another fire broke out the night of Tuesday 9 May in the historical Ghouriya district in Islamic Cairo, where many textile shops are located. Some 25 garment and textile shops were destroyed. “We have all been gone up in flames!” One trader lamented.
“My shop contained 400 rolls of cloth (40m for EGP30 a metre). We traders pay our bills and taxes. We deserve compensation by the government.”
The Ghouriya traders told Watani that fire-fighters showed up immediately and competently quenched the flames.
“But the officials who came,” another trader said, “didn’t come to offer any compensation for the losses, but came to blame the vendors and shops owners.”
“Why the blame?” Watani asked. “To force the street vendors and traders to leave the area so that it may be sold to foreign investors,” many said. “But we are not moving out.”
Officials, however, commented that the allegation was absurd. When Cairo governorate decided to evict the street vendors who had occupied large swaths of the sidewalks of Downtown Cairo and become the scourge of residents and pedestrians, the governorate was able to evict them and, in many cases, established alternative markets. [http://en.wataninet.com/features/one-day-markets-come-to-cairo/2989/] Why would it now resort to the abominable move of setting the place on fire?
One elderly trader, who also incurred losses in the fire, sounded an opinion which many do not yet find comforting, even if true. “I just want to tell everyone who incurred losses on account of the massive fire, that the loss of money or anything material is the least damage a man can incur. As long we have escaped safe, with our health and skin intact, we can start over again.”
18 May 2016