CAIRO: The fire that gutted the upper house of parliament Tuesday has fueled many Egyptians’ scorn for the country’s authoritarian government, with critics saying it is failing to maintain basic infrastructure and unable to protect its own buildings.
For some, the blaze – which killed one firefighter and injured a dozen – recalled a string of recent past accidents believed caused or worsened by negligence.
In 2006, a ferry crossing the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia sank, killing more than 1,000 Egyptians. The acquittal of the ferry’s owner on negligence charges last month raised an outcry that authorities were protecting the wealthy businessman. In 2002, a fire destroyed a train in southern Egypt, killing 370 people, mostly poor passengers in third-class cars, and there have been several deadly train collisions since.
“It’s the same confusion, the same accusations [of negligence] and the same denial, columnist Magdy El-Galad wrote Thursday in the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, comparing the parliament blaze to the earlier disasters.
Ibrahim Eissa, editor of opposition Al-Dostour daily, criticized the “deterioration of our system, which has become incapable of protecting even its buildings from fire and disasters. The opposition Al-Wafd daily called for those responsible for the fire to be put on trial.
The government of President Hosni Mubarak has already faced discontent this year, with a series of labor strikes and anger over shortages of subsidized bread, a staple of Egypt’s largely impoverished population.
Fights in long bread lines caused several deaths, and Mubarak had to order the military to sell its own bread production to the public.
The fire, which raged through the night, gutted the interiors of the top two floors of the three-story 19th Century palace, destroying Islamic decorations and the main hall where the Shoura Council holds its sessions. The hall holds great symbolic weight for Egyptians, since it was the scene of the 1881 trial of nationalist hero Ahmed Orabi and the signing of Egypt’s first constitution in 1923.
Interior Minister Habib El-Adly ruled out arson or terrorism. Initial reports said the blaze was sparked by a short-circuit in an air conditioning unit.
Press reports have focused on poor training of firefighters and the absence of sprinklers or a fire management plan for the building – features which are rare throughout Egypt, where safety rules are nonexistent or lax. Few buildings in Cairo even have smoke alarms.
Sami Mahran, parliament’s secretary-general, said the building did have fire alarms, which went off, and “parliament’s internal fire department hurried to control it. He and other officials told The Associated Press the fire moved quickly because of the palace’s wooden paneling and ceilings, many carpets and a new paint job that may have fueled it.
Unlike earlier, deadly disasters, few Egyptians seemed to mourn the destruction.
“I’m just sorry parliament wasn’t in session, one man told AP Tuesday night as he watched the blaze. He refused to give his name, fearing trouble with authorities.
Egyptians are widely skeptical of parliament, seen as a rubber stamp for Mubarak’s government. The Shoura Council – one third of which is appointed by Mubarak – and the lower house, the People’s Assembly, are dominated by the ruling party.
The fire prompted a rash of anti-government jokes passed among Egyptians by mobile-phone messages. One linked the blaze to the recent resignation of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, which had many Egyptians complaining of lack of democracy in their own country, ruled by Mubarak for 27 years.
“Hosni asked his aides, ‘Which authority in Pakistan endorsed Musharraf’s resignation?’ the joke goes. “They replied, ‘the parliament.’ Mubarak shouted, ‘Burn ours down.’
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