Killer trains ratchet up popular anger in Egypt

Calls to hold senior officials accountable could compel the government to introduce a cabinet reshuffle to ease tensions.

Wednesday 21/04/2021
People gather at the site of a train crash in Qalioubia province, north of Cairo, Egypt April 18, 2021. (REUTERS)
People gather at the site of a train crash in Qalioubia province, north of Cairo, Egypt April 18, 2021. (REUTERS)

CAIRO -The Egyptian Minister of Transport, Kamel al-Wazir, carried out, on Tuesday, a wide reshuffle in key positions at the Egyptian Railway Authority, in an attempt to deflect the popular anger over recurring of train crashes.

This comes at a time when the Egyptian public is pressing for all officials, including the  most senior, to be held accountable for these disasters, regardless of their positions, not excluding cabinet members.

On Sunday, the Benha train wreck north of Cairo, which resulted in the death of 11 people and the injury of hundreds of others, renewed speculation about an imminent government reshuffle in Egypt.

Media organisations close to the government demanded that the railway company  be cleared out of corruption after the occurrence of three crashes within a short period of time that resulted in dozens of fatalities and hundreds of injured.

For the first time, there were demands by members of the Egyptian parliament for the political accountability of the minister of transport, who had promised last month not to allow further train smashes. In Egyptian political parlance, this meant the dismissal of the minister.

Those who had previously sided with Wazir could  not find convincing arguments to defend him this time.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi tasked Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly with forming a committee with representatives from the Administrative Control Authority, the Armed Forces Engineering Authority, the Military Technical College and the faculties of engineering, to establish the causes of the latest wreck.

The government finds itself in a tough predicament, as the minister’s dismissal may actually impede the plans he devised to improve conditions of the railway network. This applies equally to the ministers of health and education,  who are overseeing ambitious projects in their sectors. But there may be a political imperative for the dismissal of any of them  in order to calm the disaffected public opinion over the succession of crises.

People watch as a telescopic railway crane lifts an overturned passenger carriage at the scene of a railway accident in the city of Toukh in Egypt’s central Nile Delta province of Qalyubiya on April 18, 2021. (AFP)
People watch as a telescopic railway crane lifts an overturned passenger carriage at the scene of a railway accident in the city of Toukh in Egypt’s central Nile Delta province of Qalyubiya on April 18, 2021. (AFP)

In a statement issued after the recent train derailment, the public prosecutor confirmed that he will take legal action against those responsible, whether directly or indirectly, thus indicating that the fallout could reach the minister of transport.

Observers expect a ministerial reshuffle that could include some ministries in charge of services. The performance of these ministries was the catalyst for recent popular discontent towards the government.  Introducing new faces might reassure citizens that action is being taken to ensure accountability.

Train crashes were not the only gripes of ordinary Egyptians. There have been growing calls on the ministry of health from remote provinces and regions to remedy to inadequate medical care as the country copes with the rise of coronavirus  infections.

The crisis of distrust between millions of citizens and the ministry of education also continues, as the ministry insists on holding remote exams without making sure before-hand that the  technical means are fully available.

MP Mustafa Bakri called on the government to move quickly to contain the spread of the pandemic in Sohag and Qena (south), saying, “Sohag is crying out and Qena is seeking help. The state must lead a strong campaign and provide more means and procedures in the two governorates.”

Political analyst Jamal Asaad said “the recurring incidents and the persistence of the same problems with services over the years are due to the fact that bureaucracy has  not genuinely adapted to the administrative revolution that has swept the rest of the world and also to the spread of corruption in various sectors of the country leading to the emergence of “institutions with deep-rooted corruption.”

“The biggest problem remains the failure of members of  parliament and the media to play their part in monitoring the situation and informing citizens about the facts. As the principle of freedom of opinion and access to information are ignored, the alternative is to cover up and justify corruption,” Asaad told The Arab Weekly.

Asaad said he is unsure of the outcome of any ministerial reshuffle in the near future if  such a reshuffle is not accompanied by a change in the prevailing mindsets, approaches and prevailing cultures. He expressed the belief that the continuation of the same work methods within the service ministries will make any reshuffles useless.

Despite the achievements of the government in terms of reforms, infrastructure projects and initiatives aimed at addressing poverty, the authorities have failed the test of good governance and that of balancing the development of the capabilities of workers with the shaping of coherent future visions, experts say.

Observers point out that shoddy services have left a negative impression on citizens. The performance of the public service remains a source of disappointment to large sectors of the population. Many also believe the mega projects in the areas of roads and transport serve a certain class of individuals and not the vast majority of Egyptians.

The crisis of confidence between citizens and service ministries seems to be an  almost insurmountable problem, as the ministries remain mostly impervious to reform, which creates the conditions for train wrecks and other disasters  with  worrisome frequency.

The government’s willingness to take painful economic measures over the past few years has not been accompanied by parallel steps to reform government institutions and upgrade their human resources.

Hassan Salama, a professor of political science at the Egyptian Centre for Social and Criminal Research said, “The crises of service ministries are inseparable from the rest of the government ministries because all the public institutions are interconnected, and it is difficult to focus on the final outcome of the services in isolation from the performance of government structures in a generally disciplined manner.”

Talking to The Arab Weekly, Salama added that “the construction phase undertaken by the Egyptian state requires more patience in making decisions about appointing or dismissing ministers, because there are parties within the deep state system that are not happy with the success of the ongoing development process at the level of introduction of technologies or more job performance control tools ”

He added, “This does not foreclose political and judicial accountability before any dismissal decision is made, and the House of Representatives must play a pivotal role in implementing the accountability process for ministers responsible for the crises of the past period.”

Egypt map

It seems that the government needs to create units to survey public opinion and citizens’ behaviour in order to further identify their reactions to general public service performance and evaluate the services they receive. Such a move would create the impression that the government is serious about reform, accountability and developing services in all sectors.

Observers fear that the continuation of the crises will lead to their exploitation by opponents of the Egyptian regime so as to question the feasibility of the development projects the government is carrying out.

It is thus  likely, according to analysts, that strict measures will be taken soon against ministers and officials so as to appease public opinion at a time when the state faces a set of regional challenges and needs, for that matter, much support at home.