Morsi blamed as Egypt's infrastructure crumbles

Two deadly train crashes in months, buildings collapsing and a corrupt bureaucracy. As elections approach, Egyptians may not only judge Mohammed Morsi's Islamist government on its performance. Bradley Hope reports from Cairo

CAIRO // Two carriages of a rusting, decrepit train part from the tracks and collide with a stationary cargo train, killing 19 young security recruits. Another train ploughs into a school bus in a village in Upper Egypt, killing 51, mostly children. An eight-storey building collapses in Alexandria, ending the lives of 17.

Such tragedies in the past few months have made painfully clear the degraded state of Egypt's buildings and infrastructure.

They also highlight the difficulties faced by Mohammed Morsi, under pressure to deliver on his presidential election promise of an Egyptian renaissance.

He has relied on a cabinet of technocrats to steer Egypt back on track, but the worsening economic situation, failure of the state to provide essential services, a corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy and tragic accidents are giving ammunition to his opponents just three months before parliamentary elections.

Mr Morsi's approval rating fell to 63 per cent at the end of December from a high of 79 per cent after 80 days in office, according to the polling group Baseera.

The poll, conducted by randomly calling landline and mobile phones of 1,833 Egyptians, suggests that a significant educated, middle-class segment of the population is more willing to shift political allegiances depending on the government's performance, said Magued Osman, the chief executive of Baseera.

"This group is changing its opinion the most," he said. "They will be an important group in deciding how powerful the Brotherhood is in the upcoming elections."

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, have blamed the country's problems on decades of stagnation and corruption under the regime of Hosni Mubarak. The Brotherhood's opponents have blamed the prime minister, Hisham Qandil, and are eager to use the recent catastrophes in their bid to supplant the government's authority.

And it is not only the educated middle classes who are judging the government on its performance, and weighing their votes accordingly. A window into shifting political allegiances in poorer areas can be found in the Nile Delta village of Imyai, an hour north of Cairo.

Here, about 15,000 people make a living mostly from producing boxes for fruits and vegetables out of the flimsy wood of palm trees. Yet some of the town's elders are growing impatient.

"The only thing that has changed in Egypt after the revolution is that the barrier of fear has been broken," said Fathi Abdel Raouf, 49, a small-scale farmer. "We aren't afraid to say what we think or even say it to the face of the president.

"Other than that, we have just seen the end of the National Democratic Party and the rise of the Brotherhood."

Mr Raouf said nearly all of Imyei's improvement projects, including drinking-water pipelines and new schools, stopped after the 2011 uprising. The only tangible change has been rising costs for bread and gas cylinders for cooking.

Sitting beside him in a majlis in the village, Fathi Humeida, 50, described how poor services in Imyei create a vicious cycle of poverty. He contracted Hepatitis C from a vaccination and has kidney problems from the poor quality of the drinking water. His health problems have required him to spend extra hours hunched over, making boxes so that he can afford medical care.

But the overtime has taken its toll on Mr Humeida's back, requiring even more treatment.

"I work all the time so I can live longer," he said. "There is no such thing as saving. We have to use every single pound for something here."

Both men are leaning toward leftist political movements in the elections because none of the promises from the Brotherhood had come through.

It is such voters - who are willing to change their political preferences based on government performance - who could play a pivotal role in the elections.

"The Brotherhood does not have enough members on its own to win an outright majority," said Mazen Hassan, a professor of political science at Cairo University. "To win, they need to reach out beyond their core constituency. We have seen in every election how this group of voters in the middle plays an important role."

Reforming Egypt's infrastructure and services may prove to be the greatest challenge on the horizon because the problems are rooted in bureaucracy.

Train safety, for instance, has received more than Dh1 billion of investment from European donors and the World Bank over the past several years. A team of Italian rail executives has been seconded to the state-run Egyptian National Railways since 2008, helping to implement a modernisation programme.

But that has not stopped five serious accidents since last July, with more than 70 killed and dozens injured.

Essam Selim, the former chairman of the Egyptian Railway Maintenance and Services Company, said the thorniest problem for safety on the railways was in human resources. He was brought in to run the subsidiary of the state railway company in 2006 and left in 2011.

"The public sector is full of people who are very unmotivated and afraid of making decisions," he said. "There is no career path, no training. This is our most dangerous problem."

The railway infrastructure - tracks, signalling equipment and carriages - is old but not on the verge of collapse, he said. The problem lay in getting people to follow through on their responsibility to check each part and sign off only on equipment that is safe for use.

"On paper, everything is fine, but the question is about whether the paperwork is accurate," he said. "If a spare part isn't available, there is pressure to sign off on something even if everything is not right. The problem is the culture."

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