Egypt’s Deadly Infrastructure Problems
Eighteen people died and dozens more were injured when two trains collided on the outskirts of Cairo last week. Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident. It fits into a pattern of deadly accidents in Egypt caused by poor safety standards and ill planning.
The most dramatic train accident in recent memory occurred in 2002 when a packed train car caught on fire because a passenger was using a gas stove. Over three hundred people died. In August 2006 two passenger trains collided killing fifty-seven people. A few weeks later there was another accident that killed five. The problem, it seems, is systematic.
But train accidents aren’t Egypt’s only problem. Infrastructure as a whole is failing. And the results are often deadly.
Last year, a landslide in Duweiqa, a Cairo shantytown, killed over a hundred. (An internal investigation recently decided that the landslide was “fate” and no one would be held responsible.) At the beginning of September a sinkhole opened up in a downtown neighborhood, swallowing three cars and forcing dozens of people out of their homes.
Even on a less calamitous level there are serious failures of government services. Because of the slaughter of Egypt’s pigs last May and a dispute between the government and European sanitation companies, garbage has been accumulating at a dizzying pace in Cairo’s streets.
Signs of failing infrastructure are everywhere in Egypt. Sidewalks are busted into chunks; electrical wires are frayed and exposed; street lights are burnt out or flickering. Sometimes this is just an inconvenience or a cosmetic shortfall. Sometimes it’s a bigger problem.
These problems, I believe, are a by-product of Egypt’s authoritarianism and its gigantic class divide. The people at the top of Mubarak’s regime aren’t particularly worried about train crashes because they travel around the country in chauffeured cars. They don’t notice if Giza is full of festering trash and don’t care if people in Duweiqa die in a landslide because they don’t live in those neighborhoods. They live in verdant, recently built, Boca Raton-like suburbs on the outskirts of Cairo. And they don’t have to worry about not being re-elected.
American democracy may not be perfect, but it generally forces leaders to take responsibility for problems. If a train catches on fire and three hundred people die, the blame will be pinned on someone. At the least, politicians have to feign concern.
Potholes are the archetypical issue in American local politics. Mayors and city council people are re-elected or voted out of office based on their ability to get potholes filled. If they want to keep their cushy jobs, then they need to make sure the garbage gets picked up and the streetlights work. Not so in Egypt.
Politicians here, from the Minister of Transportation to the head of the city council, need only be on the good side of the regime if they want to keep their cushy government jobs. And hence, there is little motivation to take care of infrastructure.
The latest train crash may prove to be different. A few days after the accident, Minister of Transportation Mohamed Mansour resigned from his post. It was the first resignation of a minister since President Mubarak took office almost thirty years ago. It may signal a growing concern for the safety of average people. Egyptians who ride the train can only hope that it does.
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