In Cairo, unearthing the victims and the truth too

As the Egyptian army digs through the rubble created from a landslide that buried a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Cairo on Saturday, allegations of corruption and government inefficiency are increasing as journalists are kept away from the scene.
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Egyptians search for victims at the site of a massive rock slide off Moqattam hill in northern Cairo on September 7. © AFP

BEIRUT, September 8, 2008 (MENASSAT) – "It's not the first time or the last time this will happen," Abou Ela Amin Mohammed, head of Egypt's National Research Institute's earthquake department told the Associated Press about the September 6 rock slide which killed at least 45 people in a shantytown on the outskirts of Cairo.

The death toll is expected to rise as the Egyptian army continues rescue efforts in Duwayqa in the eastern parts of Cairo. Eyewitnesses said hundreds of people are still believed trapped beneath the massive boulders that destroyed the neighborhood.

Information about the disaster site has been limited, with the Egyptian government funneling information about its aftermath through official state media channels.

Public outcry

Meanwhile, frustration is building up among the residents who say that the government rescue effort has been too slow and that the operation is focusing more on maintaining security than on saving lives. Clashes between the residents and the police have been going on since Sunday.

"Residents are throwing stones at police and shouting at civil defense officials. They are angry because they say rescue efforts are slow and inefficient," a security official said on condition of anonymity in an article published by the Daily News Egypt.

Reports are also emerging that journalists are being prevented from gaining access to the disaster area.

“Police troops have put the area under siege, banning journalists from entering,” read a blog post from the Cairo-based journalist Hossam el-Hamalway, who moderates

Meanwhile, the government daily Al-Ahram newspaper put out a report saying that President Hosni Mubarak has instructed the government to provide alternative housing for the victim's families.

"The local council is gathering the names of residents to compensate them with these other apartments," MO Haidar Baghdadi told the Associated Press.

Minister of Social Solidarity Ali Moselhi announced that LE 5,000 would be paid to the family of each person killed and LE 1,000 to each injured person, the official MENA news agency reported.

But residents of Duwayga expressed doubt that the authorities would live up to their promises.

"The authorities are not saving anyone, its all people from the neighborhood pulling bodies out from the rubble," a woman who gave her name as Besehsian told the Christian Science Monitor.

Another man whose wife and three children remained buried under the rubble, addressed a crowd of neighbors, urging them to take action towards the authorities.

"The authorities always tell us to stay calm and just wait for our lives to get better, but we should all learn a lesson from what happened here. No religion approves of what the government has done to us. Mubarak has to do something to help us. Shame on Mubarak!"

History of neglect

Residents of Duwayga had in the past voiced concern over the possibility that the eroding rocks hanging over their homes might one day fall on their homes. Their complaints, they say, went unheeded.

An article published by the Daily News Egypt in July of this year now reads as an ominous warning.

"The rock was secure when we first came here. But with the water and wind, it was slowly eroding. We have complained to the local municipality, and the governorate office in Abdeen, but to no avail. An inspector came in his car, but didn’t even bother to get out. He looked out his window, and drove off,” resident Suraya Abdel-Qader Ali told the Daily News Egypt.

Shantytowns have been the subjects of intense scrutiny recently, yet observers have raised concerns over the fact that the thousands of government homes built over the past five years to relocate the shanty town residents remain empty.

After an emergency meeting on Saturday evening, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif said there would be a full review of shantytowns throughout the country.

Saturday’s fatal rock slide marked the second time in only a few weeks that a calamity strikes Egypt. In August, fire ravaged the century-old building of the parliament building in downtown Cairo. One fireman died in the inferno and at least four people were taken to the hospital for injuries.

Then as now, the authorities were faced with stinging criticism of incompetence and corruption.

Eyewitnesses said it took emergency service staff 45 minutes to arrive after the fire broke out.

The press was muzzled too. Egypt's state-run printing house Al-Ahram allegedly received government orders not to print an edition of the independent Al-Badil newspaper because it contained controversial reports about the official response to the fire. 

The same report also mentioned in passing that the fire destroyed records about some controversial incidents, including the capsizing of an overloaded ferry in 2006 that resulted in the loss of more than one thousand lives.

In July of this year, an Egyptian criminal court acquitted the owner of the Al-Salam 98 ferry and four others accused of manslaughter in the case.