As President Mohamed Morsi struggles to calibrate his response to the ongoing Gaza Strip crisis, Saturday morning in Egypt brought a whole new challenge: the tragic death of at least 50 people, mostly children below the age of 6, when their school bus was struck by a train in a rural village south of Cairo.
The aftermath of the crash promises to push, at least temporarily, the Gaza issue off the top of the news bulletins and front pages. It’s the first purely domestic crisis Morsi has faced since assuming the presidency in late June, and many will be scrutinizing his response.
Morsi immediately dispatched his Prime Minister Hisham Qandil (who had visited Gaza the day before) down to the village of Manfalout in Assiut governorate, about 300 km south of the capital. But Qandil’s delegation was reportedly prevented from approaching the scene by crowds of outraged villagers and families of the dead children. Morsi also accepted the resignation of his Transportation Minister and the head of the National Railway Authority and made a televised statement to the nation promising “fast investigations in order to identify those responsible.”
In Egypt’s divisive and increasingly bitter political climate, some political groups seized the opportunity to pile on Morsi and his administration. The April 6 movement — which had supported Morsi in his runoff presidential victory against Mubarak-era Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik — issued a statement harshly criticizing the President for a failure to clear government bodies of corrupt and incompetent Mubarak-era officials.
Morsi is being repeatedly challenged by lingering hangovers from Mubarak’s 29-year reign. In Gaza, he has inherited a Mubarak-era policy of talking tough but essentially partnering with Israel and the U.S. in marginalizing Hamas and keeping the Gaza Strip bottled up. Morsi must find ways to show he is different from Mubarak while still somehow preventing a rupture with Washington or Tel Aviv.
Domestically, among a host of other issues, he faces a chronically unsafe public-transportation and highway system — beset by negligence, shoddy maintenance and little in the way of proper safety standards. Fatal road accidents in Cairo are relatively rare — partially because the city is so clogged that no driver can build up the speed to seriously injure anyone. But the highways in between the cities are often terrifying.
The rail system is even worse, and train accidents take place with alarming regularity. Earlier this month, at least three Egyptians were killed and more than 30 injured in a train crash in Fayoum, south of Cairo. In July, 15 people were injured in Giza, close to the capital, when a train derailed. In August 2006, two trains collided head-on, north of Cairo — killing 58 and injuring 140.
Egypt’s worst train disaster — and a lingering black mark on Mubarak’s record — took place in 2002 when a fire ripped through seven carriages of an overcrowded passenger train, killing 373. The fire was blamed on lax safety regulations that allowed rural families to bring and use portable gas stoves on the aged wooden train cars.
Yet another 2002 crash in Giza governorate left 18 people dead. In the aftermath, a young politician named Mohamed Morsi even weighed in. According to the state-owned Al-Ahram Online, Morsi — then a member of the small but pesky Muslim Brotherhood bloc in the parliament — criticized the government response and said the accident “reflects the massive neglect by high officials, including the head of Egypt’s Railway Authority, the Minister of Transportation and the Prime Minister.” Now, he has to clean up the mess himself.
Khalil is a Cairo-based journalist and author of Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation