The fire that ripped through Egypt’s Shoura Council building on Tuesday was more than just a reminder of past disasters; it was a prelude to future ones.
The sequence of events was all too familiar: a small flame erupts in some neglected room – initial reports always suspect it may have been caused by the ever-elusive ‘electric short circuit’; (generous) estimates claim fire trucks arrived about 45 minutes late; the traffic is (supposedly) diverted to ease access to the smoldering building; conflicting accounts of the numbers injured leave both reporters and the general public befuddled; suddenly we learn that over 10 people suffered from smoke inhalation and were hospitalized; fire engines run out of water; fears of a domino effect are on the rise; officials are quick to rule out arson, even before an investigation; it takes a least 12 hours to put out the fire.
This time around, however, there’s one (in)significant addition to the farcical scenario: army firefighting helicopters are deployed to save the day.
Like manna from heaven, huge amounts of water descend from the sky, but don’t hold your breath because they actually miss their flaming target.
Instead the water descends on the heads of journalists, bystanders and, believe it or not, firefighters who, left waterless despite their ironic proximity to the longest river on earth, are reduced to spectators, their hands literally tied.
In a symbolic “morning after moment, Egypt woke up minus its Upper House of Parliament.
Yet it wasn’t that initial flame – no matter what caused it – that reduced to ashes this 160-year-old heritage site. It was a cumulative combination of negligence (the building lacks a fire alarm, sprinklers and a sound security system) dire urban planning, a traffic ‘system’ that can at best be described in Darwinian terms where only the fittest can survive, and a civil defense authority with meager facilities and no proper training.
It was an act of Divine mercy that the fire didn’t happen during working hours, when hundreds of people may have been killed or injured within minutes.
But this was not the case in 2002 on the catastrophic Al Ayyat train, in 2005 in the Beni Suef Cultural Palace fire, or in early 2007 at Sayeda Zeinab’s shanty town of Qalaat El-Kabsh – to name just a few “accidents that will forever be etched in collective memory of Egyptians.
When a cooking gas cylinder exploded on a train traveling from Cairo to Luxor causing a fire that burnt to cinders seven carriages each packed with at least 150 passengers, there were no means of communication between the driver and the passengers in the back occupying the cheaper third class seats. Reports indicated that the driver did not even know about the fire except two hours after it broke out, and so many people who tried to flee from the overcrowded carriages were killed in the jump. Just to save face, officials grossly underestimated the number of fatalities, claiming that 383 people had died; a fact that could not be verified at the time with no records of the number of tickets sold. As an investigative committee later reported, fire extinguishers, on the rare occasions when they did exist, were either wrongly stowed or did not work.
Three years later, the Beni Suef theater tragedy of September 2005 saw the death of 46 people, including some of Egypt’s cultural icons, when a burning candle on stage caught some paper décor, setting the theater ablaze.
Reports said that the building had a single exit, which meant that victims either burnt to death or were trampled on in the stampede. Fire extinguishers were also locked in some hidden room and fire engines and ambulances arrived late and were unprepared. A year later, eight officials were convicted for negligence and given 10-year prison sentences.
And more recently a fire destroyed the underprivileged shanty town of Qalaat El-Kabsh in Sayeda Zeinab, leaving 1000 people homeless after blazing through some 250 wooden and cardboard shacks. Months later, 150 of the 350 bereft families had to resort to the attorney-general, complaining that the government had reneged on promises to provide them with alternative homes. They also complained of the police brutality to which they were subjected when they demanded their rights or tried to impede government bulldozers from demolishing the remaining shacks as part of a 2001 plan to upgrade the squatter area.
It’s difficult to imagine the extent of the humanitarian disaster we’d have on our hands if something a little more challenging than a fire were to afflict Egypt.
With public hospitals and the civil defense authority in dire conditions, there is no safety net for the 25 percent of Egyptians living under the poverty line.
Without sufficient financial means to secure the most basic right of protection by the state in case of natural disasters like the outbreak of a deadly disease, or an earthquake, those on the bottom of the socio-economic hierarchy are doomed.
The simmering anger of millions of hopeless, disenfranchised youth, abandoned by the state on all levels must not be underestimated, which, despite the obvious difference in political climate, calls to mind the pre-1952 revolution Cairo Fire.
Ironically, back then while the King was hosting a special celebration to welcome the birth of the heir to the throne, Egyptians took to the streets and set fire to almost 700 British and other foreign-owned establishments in protest at the brutal murder by British soldiers of 60 Egyptian policemen who supported the anti-colonialist resistance movement.
The polarization of Egyptian society today with widespread poverty, a growing gap between rich and poor and a state that has relinquished most of its duties but none of its (emergency law) rights, is nothing short of a ticking bomb.
The Shoura Council fire fiasco is a microcosm of the situation in Egypt as a whole.
If the body charged with conceptualizing ways to promote national unity and social peace; protecting the basic constituents and supreme values of society, public rights, freedoms and duties; approving amendments to the constitution; overlooking international peace treaties and giving consultative advice on all plans for social and economic development, doesn’t realize that a fire alarm and a sprinkler system are a priority to safeguard its own archive, then there must be something terribly wrong.
Rania Al Malky is the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.