Problems on hold
This is not the first time I use the heading “Fooled a thousand times” in my Problems on hold series. I used it two years ago, on 23 August 2015, when I wrote about the fire which then destroyed the Attaba Telephone Exchange building in Downtown Cairo. Citing the catastrophic details that led to the fire, I deplored the habitual apathy and negligence that have become typical of Egyptians and which make the reoccurrence of ‘accidents’ inevitable. I quoted a Hadith, a quote by the Prophet Muhammad, that has become folk wisdom in Egypt and that goes: “No believer is stung out of the same hole [as in scorpion hole] twice”, meaning that one learns from mistakes and avoids repeating them; one cannot be fooled twice. Hence the bitter sarcasm in: “Fooled a thousand times”; why is it that we never learn from our mistakes? Instead we allow our negligence, inadequacy and failure to lead us into the same ‘hole’ a thousand times.
With every disastrous ‘accident’ that takes place in Egypt, State officials repeat the same hollow rhetoric about having detected the shortcomings that caused the disaster, and of plans to rectify them. Eventually, the flowery official talk evaporates into thin air and the public, caught up in more pressing matters, give in to apathy. Months later, another calamity caused by the same by-now-chronic social and official ailments rudely wakes them up, only to ask: “But they told us there would be no more accidents! They said serious renovation and modernisation were taking place at top speed!”
Today, with sadness and bitterness, I feel obliged to again use the title “Fooled a thousand times” as I broach the latest heart-wrenching ‘accident’ in Egypt, which promises not to be the last. I talk of the deadly crash that occurred close to Alexandria on Friday 11 August when a train coming from Cairo rammed into another train that had come from the city of Port Said and had halted on the main track due to some ‘malfunction’. The crash, which claimed the lives of 42 passengers and injured 133, was beyond doubt the result of inadequate administration and absence of safety and quality control. It left us horrified and angry, mortified and embarrassed. The horror and dismay intensified as we followed its surreal details on our local media, and the embarrassment and mortification were inevitable as we found our backwardness and inadequacy publicly aired on international media for all the world to see. For the past few years we have been bitterly blaming the international media for biased reporting against Egypt, intentionally blemishing the country’s image through falsifying truths. This time, however, the media reported nothing but the facts. Hence the indignity of seeing our shortcomings so truthfully exposed.
So what did the Egyptian administration do? It was the same old story over and over again. The same ‘all State apparatuses following up on the aftermath of the crash’, the same ‘taking to account all those responsible’, the same ‘direct action to be taken against anyone who is proved to have committed gross negligence’, the same ‘those in leadership positions in the Railway Authority will be penalised and dismissed, up to the top ranks’. Did this mean the railway system had been modernised and included no deficiency? But wait a minute! Other declarations spoke of a deteriorated railway infrastructure that had seen no modernisation throughout 40 years, leading to a deficient safety and security system. Now, what is the public to believe; that officials are being taken to account and discharged from their posts for their failure to carry out their responsibility? Or that they should be excused because the infrastructure is rundown and has seen no repair or renovation for the past 40 years? It is enough to drive one out of one’s mind.
What is mind-boggling, however, is not the contradictory declarations, but the frequency with which horrendous train accidents have been occurring in Egypt.
In 2002, a huge fire that erupted in the Cairo Aswan train claimed 350 lives and injured more than a thousand. In 2006, two commuter trains collided at a Qalyoub junction during the morning rush hour, leaving 58 dead and 143 injured. In 2009, a train halted on the Cairo Assiut line due to some malfunction, and another train coming at full speed on the same line rammed into it; 30 died and hundreds were injured. In 2012, a train travelling from Assiut hit a school bus carrying some 70 school children between four and six years old, on a rail crossing near Manfalout; 50 children died, as did the bus driver. In the aftermath of each of these horrendous ‘accidents’, Egyptians were treated to the full menu of the by-now standard official declarations.
In the wake of the most recent crash, an official declaration pledged the allocation of EGP45 billion over the coming three years to renovate the railway network. Anyone with any sense would know that such huge funds could only be allocated according to the national plan and within the State budget. How, then, were they so casually announced a day or two following the calamity? And where is that huge sum to come from, given the current economic straits Egypt is passing through, and in light of declarations by railway officials that the Railway Authority is incurring huge losses and can do nothing as long as there is no political will to raise train tickets prices?
I cannot help wondering why we do not have the courage to privatise the railway authority and resort to foreign expertise to set it back on track? We have no qualms about importing foreign expertise to excavate for oil and gas, to train sports teams, or even to run garbage collection and recycling. Yet our national pride seems to flare at seeking help to rescue our failed railway service.
20 August 2017