A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

I'm Trying to Avoid the Obvious Headline Metaphor About Egypt's Government Being a "Train Wreck"

But someone's going to use that headline soon, I'm sure. Egypt's latest train disaster, coming only two months after its last one, is drawing a lot of criticism of the government's inability to do anything about these sorts of preventable disasters. Prime Minister Qandil, visiting the site of the wreck, had to be rushed to safety when crowds started throwing things. The train,  carrying Central Security Forces recruits, derailed after a car became uncoupled and crashed into a freight train, leaving 19 dead and over 100 injured. In November, another train hit a school bus at a grade crossing which had not been closed, killing 51 schoolchildren. Ahram Online provides a helpful timeline of fatal train crashes since 1992; just since last July there have been four (excluding this latest), but involving six trains, since two of those were collisions. That's five wrecks involving eight trains in a little over six months, and those are just the ones with fatalities.

There are reports that the recruits aboard thought the train was being operated improperly but were afraid to complain because of military discipline. Zeinobia is reporting there were 1200 conscripts on the train,  with six seated in each space designed for two, and with neither lights nor toilets. She also says the Prime Minister initially sent condolences to the Defense Ministry, though these were Interior Ministry conscripts.

Whatever the reasons in this case, there is a long history of overcrowded and overloaded trains, operated at excessive speeds on deteriorating trackbeds, collisions at speed,  ungated crossings, and the like. There are regulations of course, but they are poorly enforced (if at all).

Apparently recognizing the growing public anger, the Muslim Brotherhood promptly blamed Husni Mubarak. (Though Zeinobia also refers to conspiracy theories blaming the opposition.) Thirty years of neglect is certainly a factor, but all those crashes in 2012 and now this one are  wearing popular patience thin.

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