CAIRO: The scenario is all too familiar: A fire breaks out killing three, or a mountain collapses into an avalanche of deadly boulders killing 300; rescue efforts are slow and ineffective; victims and those left homeless are up in arms demanding a roof over their heads and some form of compensation; the government makes promises; it keeps half of them, and the rest evaporate.
Although the loss of life caused by this week’s fire in the 50-year-old Friday (Gomaa) Market near Sayeda Aisha in the district of Khalifa was not as shockingly high as that reported after the Duweiqa rockslide two years ago, the underlying elements of disaster are very much the same.
The number of reported deaths following the outbreak of a fire in the market caused by the explosion of a car that swerved off an overhead bridge, is three. Although this in itself is tragic, the worse tragedy is that which has befallen those who were left with no homes or sources of livelihood when the raging fire razed the entire area reducing it to a pile of ashes.
Eyewitnesses interviewed by this newspaper a day after the fire said that the fire trucks arrived almost three hours after it broke out and was reported. That’s three whole hours of flames eating at furniture shops packed with wood merchandise worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Slow and inadequate responses to huge disasters are nothing new to Egypt. Cases in point: the Shoura Council building fire in 2008; the Beni Sueif theater fire that killed over 30 and injured tens; and the numerous train disasters over the past 10 years that killed hundreds and saw the resignation of two ministers, not to mention the Duweiqa rockslide.
In the majority of these cases, the authorities are quick to announce emergency measures and swift decisions to deal with decades-old compound problems that have been neglected beyond repair. It’s as if the authorities intentionally wait for disaster to hit to seize the opportunity to take action that they claim has been in the pipeline for years.
When Duweiqa happened, all of a sudden we started hearing about government plans to deal with the festering phenomenon of informal squatter areas that house over millions of people and pose threats to security, health and the environment. It was only then that the government decided to allocate homes to those left homeless by the natural disaster, even though the apartments that were swiftly handed over had been standing empty for years.
A similar scenario is repeated with the Gomaa Market issue. Within a day, the authorities said that they had been planning to move the market anyway. They announced that 15 feddans have been allocated to the market in 15th of May City and that a committee of engineers and architects is now designing the new market with plans to open the new market in two months.
If such amazing efficiency is possible to achieve, then why has it not been done before? I completely agree that these unhygienic, squatter markets and areas must be moved to the new satellite cities and the land they occupied cleaned up and used more efficiently, but why couldn’t this be planned and implemented through a clear set of milestones during which time the residents and business owners of these areas are prepared physically and psychologically for the move, and their new destinations completed with utilities, transportation and everything required to lead a stable humane existence?
Many of the survivors of the Gomaa Market fire are business owners who may face prison if they default on bank payments and paying back IOUs. To suddenly find themselves out in the cold and be told that in two months – if indeed it takes two months – they will be uprooted and relocated to the other end of the city and that in the meantime they should just “deal with it”, not only betrays utter disrespect, but also exposes the pathetic inefficiency of a government that doesn’t know the first thing about planning ahead or crisis management.
The car accident and ensuing fire were not unexpected as the overhead Tonsy Bridge has long been known to be defective. To add insult to injury, the authorities are trying to justify their decision by claiming that people have complained from the market.
To use the words of Sayed Tawfik, a café owner in the area: “They said that they’ve had complaints [about the market], but who could have complained? We are surrounded by cemeteries. Who could have complained; the train that passes every 3-4 hours?”
Or perhaps it was the dead six feet under in the cemeteries? In Egypt, you never know.
Rania Al Malky is the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.