Editorial: Of trains, ministers and accountability

Rania Al Malky
5 Min Read

CAIRO: Egypt’s train accident in Al-Ayyat last Saturday was a terrible tragedy, claiming the lives of 18 people, but was anyone truly shocked by it? I think not.

Our scandalous history of transport catastrophes is matched only by the equally scandalous failure of our education system’s failure to educate – the murder of minds is no less dangerous to this country than the catastrophic loss of life we recently witnessed.

As we’ve all been reading over the years, Egypt is not new to railway disasters: A rough estimate of the number of people killed in rail accidents since 2000 yields at least 1,000 documented cases. The worst of these was the February 2002 train fire which claimed no less than 400 lives, ironically in the very same Ayyat area were the latest crash occurred.

I won’t get into the human calamity, the horror of flesh fusing into metal, of crushed bones and collapsed families, but these haunting images will forever be etched in the minds of those who have no choice but to continue using the death trains.

Tragedies like this don’t happen in a vacuum. And even though human errors do occur all over the world, when it comes to railway safety measures in Egypt, the reasons are incredibly complex. Not only do they convey systematic negligence and the general state of deficiency in maintenance and equipment, but also executive negligence on the highest levels.

The political drama succeeding this accident soon overrode the tragedy itself.

Minister of Transport Mohamed Mansour resigned (or was asked to resign) less than 24 hours after saying that he refuses to step down on a national TV program. Speculations about the erratic decision exploded, with some saying that Mansour was made to resign by the president to defuse the popular anger and indignation on the Egyptian street; while others opined that Mansour was a scapegoat reflecting the growing internal rift within the ranks of the ruling National Democratic Party between the old and new guard, the class of businessmen/politicians close to the younger Mubarak, Gamal, to which Mansour belongs.

Others believe that Mansour, like the Minister of Housing Ahmed El-Maghraby, are the targets of a vicious smear campaign bankrolled and masterminded by another minister in a feud over Cabinet premiership. Mansour’s ouster has stirred rife debate over the imminence of a cabinet shuffle and its implications on the various succession scenarios for the presidency.

A heated parliamentary debate about the Ayyat accident pitted Shoura Council hawk Zakaria Azmi (old guard) against Mansour in an unusual attack on the government by a powerful member of the NDP.

Much too soon, the victims were forgotten and interest shifted towards the inner workings of the ruling party and the fate of a defeated minister, or the conspiracy against him.

The most important debate that sprang from this tragedy, however, was the least publicized: that about accountability. Was Mansour responsible for this accident, or did he inherit an already dilapidated mesh of corruption and incompetence that would take decades to repair? In such cases, how far is a minister politically or criminally liable? Besides, so what if we remove this minister and install a new one? Didn t a previous transport minister “resign after the first Ayyat disaster?

According to a constitutional lawyer, Egyptian government ministers can be taken to court for a variety of crimes, including negligence, misappropriation of public funds and a slew of other criminal offences, such as benefiting financially from their position – but there’s a catch. Ministers can only be tried in a “special court, which incidentally, doesn’t exist.

On the eve of the opening of a new parliamentary session, this issue must be placed on the agenda.

The Egyptian regime, with its cabinet ministers has gone for too long without being placed in the dock.

How many people need to die before we stop nailing the little people on the cross, while the big fish continue to get away scot-free?

Rania Al Malkyis the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.

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