Facing two disasters, Egypt’s President Sisi pledges tough action
CAIRO--Egypt is having to deal with two major crises; the country’s latest deadly train smash and the huge container vessel entirely blocking the Suez Canal which has pole-axed the shipping movement of hundreds of billions of dollars of urgent cargo between Asia and Europe.
Several countries have expressed their willingness to help Egypt deal with catastrophic grounding on the Japanese container ship Ever Given, while many offered their condolences to Cairo for the 32 dead and almost 100 injured when trains collided in the Sohag governorate in the south of the country.
These two disasters have thrown the spotlight sharply on how Egypt deals with crises.
The Suez Canal and the Egyptian railways are two of the oldest and most important facilities in Egypt. More than a century and a half have passed since they began operating. The canal generates an income of about $6 billion a year, while Egyptian National Railways’ 5,600 kilometre network last year recorded 800 million passenger miles.
Since he took office is 2014, President Sisi has paid particular attention to both the canal and the railway system, appointing senior military officers to their management.
Ironically, the minister of transportation, Major General Kamel Waziri, was two years ago given his ministry (which oversees the railway system) after another train smash killed scores of people. Sisi charged him with upgrading the long-neglected railway network. Before this, Waziri, then head of the Engineering Authority of the Egyptian Armed Forces had supervised the project to expand the Suez Canal project.
Sisi began in office by ordering the excavation of a second channel alongside the existing northern section of the canal. He also promised that the railway’s problems would end by 2020. Both these giant projects were apparently aimed at bolstering support for his new administration.
Now Egyptians have woken up to the two disasters occurring almost at the same time. This will have raised questions in their minds about the wisdom of the new canal opened in August 2015, at a cost of about $4 billion and about the development of the railway system priced at around $9 billion
The new section of canal has certainly improved the movement of vessels. But unfortunately the Japanese container ship ran firmly aground in the southern part of the canal which only allows a single shipping lane, meaning vessels move through in a traffic light system. The rescue operation has been complicated by the fact that the Ever Given is entirely blocking the canal, from one side to the other and nothing can pass it.
The development of the railway system has made great progress in terms of the modernisation of carriages and locomotives. But it has not seemed to include upgrading poor operational practices.
President Sisi vowed on his Twitter account on Friday, that those responsible for the train collision would receive “a deterrent punishment” and this will mean “whoever caused this painful accident out of neglect, corruption, or anything else, without exception, delay or hesitation.”
A statement by the Railway Authority has already acknowledged negligence, explaining “During the course of the 157 special train service, between Luxor, Alexandria, between the Maragha and Tahta stations, the emergency door of some of the cars was opened by unknown persons. Therefore the train stopped, and the air-conditioned 2011 train from Aswan passed the Cairo Semaphore 709 and collided with the rear of the last car of train 157 . This led to the overturning of two cars from the the 157 train which were stalled on the tracks. The 2011 train locomotive and the power vehicle overturned, which led to a number of injuries and deaths.”
The Ministry of Health announced the death of 32 passengers and the injury of 91 others during the collision and reported that 36 ambulances had gone to the scene to transport the injured to hospitals.
According to a report issued by the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (governmental), train accidents in Egypt during between 2003 and 2017 totalled 16,174, with 1,657 accidents recorded in 2017 alone.
There was no more recent data available, but it was reported that train accidents occurred less often than the previous period, as a result of better maintenance and renovation.
While the Suez Canal has not witnessed major crises that disrupted navigation except in times of wars with Israel, the railway system has seen many disruptions. Five transportation ministers were fired or resigned before the current minister’s appointment, with train smashes being the major reason for their dismissal.
Observers say that the collision of the two trains on Friday is not an ordinary incident. It presents Sisi with a dilemma, as transport minister Waziri is responsible for fixing the railway system and what happened was the result of neglect by those in charge.
Sisi has shown himself prepared to act against close colleagues. In 2017, after a terrorist operation in Western desert in which a number of officers and soldiers were killed, he fired the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, Lieutenant General Mahmoud Hegazy, despite the ties of friendship, military fellowship and intermarriage.