Egypt rockslide highlights rich and poor divide

Ahmed Gharib Mohammed and his family were sleeping when a massive rockslide flattened their home at the foot of Moqattam Hill.

Residents clash with Egyptian riot police as police stop them from approaching a rockfall site in Manshiyet Nasser shanty town in eastern Cairo September 8, 2008. The death toll from a rockfall that sent boulders crashing down on dozens of houses in a crowded Cairo shanty town rose to 51, with a number of people still missing, Egyptian security sources said. 
REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih  (EGYPT) *** Local Caption ***  GOT07_EGYPT LANDSLI_0908_11.JPG
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CAIRO // Ahmed Gharib Mohammed and his family were sleeping when a massive rockslide flattened their home at the foot of Moqattam Hill on Saturday, burying them in rubble. Mr Mohammed, his wife and two children were rescued by neighbours who pulled them out, but his two brothers and three sisters perished. "I searched like mad for my missing siblings. I found them, all dead. I buried them with my hands," said Mr Mohammed, 36, his eyes red and swollen, and his torn T-shirt and pants stained with blood. Um Ibrahim el Wardani, 55, a neighbour, overheard the conversation. "You're lucky, my whole family is missing," she said. Such stories are common in the aftermath of Saturday's rockslide, which killed 51 with many still missing. The residents of the Manshiyet Nasser shantytown - along with much of the public - are furious with the government. Not only for what they see as inadequate rescue efforts, but also because yet another preventable disaster has struck Egypt and the victims, once again, are the poor. "Planes have fallen, ferries were sunk, trains were burnt, even mountains are falling," said writer Hamdi Rizq. "It's a sign that the government has expired. It's impotence and weakness are so evident." A catalogue of transportation, structural and natural disasters has plagued Egypt under the current government, in power since 2004, showing up the country's shoddy infrastructure, poor planning and insufficient emergency services, critics say. Indeed many of the rescue workers sent to Manshiyet Nasser were seen sleeping in shaded areas as residents dug through the rubble with basic tools and even their hands. Building collapses frequently claim lives in impoverished neighbourhoods throughout the country, where poorly constructed tenements easily succumb to earthquakes and the ravages of age. Train crashes are also common on the country's creaking railways, and a ferry disaster in 2006 claimed around a thousand lives. The vast majority of the victims in these cases are poor, leading many to believe that the government has little regard for the less well-off. "The residents [of Manshiyet Nasser] are from the same class as those who drowned in the ferry, and [died on] the train that burnt," wrote columnist Fahmi Howeidy in the opposition daily Al Dustour. "The problem of all those people is that they are citizens without a price." The rockslide also highlighted the phenomenon of makeshift shantytowns such as Manshiyet Nasser, where there is no running water and no proper sewerage or rubbish systems. The government said housing units had been built nearby, but residents said officials had demanded bribes before they could move in, and most of the units remain empty. "We lived in this place worse than animals, and are dying as such," said Hassan Hussein, 42, who had yet to find his family after the rockslide. "Would you ever imagine or accept to live in a place like this? We've been living here because we have nothing else, and we lost everything." According to government estimates, about 16 million people live in shantytowns in Egypt, with 81 of the slums in Cairo. They are mostly inhabited by migrants from rural areas coming to the capital looking for work. "The root solution to end all these catastrophes is to end the original catastrophe which is this government, and produce a ruling regime that fights poverty, not the poor," said Mohammed el Sayed Saeed, editor of the leftist daily Al Badeel. Even staunch supporters of the regime have joined the cacophony of voices criticising the government and demanding justice. "This time, we shouldn't wait for the outcome of investigations, or forming a committee to investigate. First, all senior officials should be sacked and tried without delay, from ministers to city council officials," wrote Karam Gabr, chairman of Rose el Youssef, the mouthpiece of the ruling National Democratic Party's policy committee, which is headed by Gamal Mubarak. "How can we defend a catastrophic government? ... It's the right of public opinion to be angry." But ultimately it was those affected by the disaster that had the harshest words for the authorities. "Tell [President] Hosni Mubarak that my whole family were buried alive, and the government hasn't been able to pull them out," said Mrs Wardani, who lost most of her family in the rockslide. "Why doesn't he come to see how we are living and dying? Why we the poor suffer while we are living, [then] die terribly and have no value?" nmagd@thenational.ae