By Mohamed Abdelfattah
Egyptians are once again confronted with, and unified in, the only thing that has sustained their togetherness: calamity.
At least 50 children died as their bus recklessly traversed a malfunctioning level crossing, only to be hit by an oncoming train and dragged for close to 1,000 metres, according to witnesses.
Seventeen more kids reportedly survived, but a life of woe, trauma, and disbelief may still haunt them for good.
The body parts of dismembered four to six year-olds were scattered for almost a kilometre, and bereaved family members had them collected in plastic bags as they desperately waited for an ambulance that arrived more than an hour later.
The specifics of a failing level crossing system, if any, may not be needed to cite. It’s not any different from the many other train crashes or road deaths this country has endured for decades.
But what has caught my attention in the midst of all this is a revealing investigative report published almost two months ago on Al-Masry Al-Youm online.
EGP 5.5 million was allocated earlier this year for the renovation of the crumbling level crossings across Egypt’s beleaguered railways. None of this money ever materialised, the report reveals.
The reporter toured across Egypt to find evidence of any improvement or renovation projects, but found none.
Level crossings across impoverished upper Egypt were supposed to be completely renovated from January for a sum of EGP 1.5 million. No one knows into which pocket this money found its way.
It’s a sad story.
I don’t know what the reporter felt at the sight of spilled blood she tried to play a role in preventing. I feel absolutely sorry for her and equally for journalism. The brilliant information-digging she did in the public interest has achieved nothing.
Many of us who got into journalism, particularly among this young generation, had hopes for making real impact on people’s lives. Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable is the mantra that has been driving many of us. But in Egypt, it seems the comfortable are getting more comfort and the afflicted will have to bear more suffering.
It looks like a time of disillusionment for many. I know we’re not supposed to wield influence on power in every story we write. But the unmatched tragic loss of life in this crash should get us to start questioning what is wrong beyond the sphere and capacity of the press?
Most stories of death-by-torture in the country’s notorious police stations and detention centres have found little or no recourse in a criminal justice system that needs to be upended. I recall a story I uncovered in 2010, of a young man in a poor neighbourhood of Alexandria who was tortured to death.
The case of Ahmed Shaaban made its way to several international media outlets and triggered an Amnesty International statement before it made its way into local press busy with an election season. Several local activist groups launched protests in support. But the pressure the victim’s family had to bear, along with the continual threats they received from the local police force, had them acquiesce and finally agree to put the investigation on the shelf.
It seems across all aspects of injustice in this country, the state machinery is the actual culprit. Whoever (de)formed this bureaucracy and filled almost all legal frameworks with countless loopholes, designed to favour the powerful against the powerless in startling consistency, should be indicted with premeditated murder.
And the Muslim Brotherhood, who have blatantly hijacked the Egyptian revolution, are another culprit. They have deliberately reduced the radical changes everyone hoped for to mere time-serving and cosmetic reforms. The “renaissance” project has revived nothing but Mubarakist practices, spiced up with Islamic undertones of morality.
In fact, it’s not the first time Egypt’s railway system has been soaked in blood. A simple Google search leads you to a tragic litany of accidents. Even during Mubarak’s era, transport officials got fired for similar events. What has changed? Nothing.
A simple reading into the body-count of road and railway accidents in Egypt every year is shocking. According to the World Health Organization, Egypt loses about 1,2000 lives each year to road accidents. Five months in power, has the Muslim Brotherhood’s second-choice president (Morsy) initiated or even pondered a proactive policy to prevent this systemic bloodshed?
The tragic collision is likely to follow the typical trajectory of such horrendous acts of public negligence: firing an official; holding a low-level employee accountable; and offering embarrassing reparations to bereaved families. But nothing will touch the crumbling state machinery the Muslim Brotherhood has shown itself willing to preserve.
This tragedy will likely be a defining moment for many who wished good for Egypt after the revolution. For the families of the dead and injured, I ran out of words that could be used to console their loss. For the Egyptian press and a vanguard of anti-establishment journalists, I wish nothing but the ability to resist a persisting state of disillusionment.
Mohamed Abdelfattah is a journalist and multimedia producer based in Cairo, Egypt. His main news beats are politics, human rights, and criminal justice. In 2011, he won an International Press Freedom Award for his work on police brutality.