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Egypt's chronic public service nightmare leaves citizens by wayside

Train, car crashes and a building collapse lead Egyptians to wonder who's watching out for them.

One of Cairo's notorious traffic jams -- a daily frustration that belies poor city planning (Andrew A. Shenouda).

With the news of a train crash earlier this month that left 19 passengers dead and another 120 wounded, Egypt received news of yet another crash, and then a building collapse, and then a fire.

Egypt appears to be dealing with its own version of a Series of Unfortunate Events. What seem like constant disasters have left many worried about Egypt’s basic infrastructure, and with the devastating bus crash that left 51 schoolchildren dead in Assuit still fresh in memory, the current government has been put squarely in the spotlight.

Issues with public services is not a new problem. Over the years there have been signs of fragility that are partly caused by a rapidly growing population, a population that has put a strain on space, and a growing need for services that the previous government failed to provide. A new report released by the Ministry of Transportation estimates an average of 550 train wrecks per year, another report by the Central Authority for Public Transport, reports that the annual death rate for train crashes in 2010 rose by 7.9 percent, to an all time high of 7,700 deaths per year.

Questions have been raised over who is responsible and what exactly is causing the crashes.

Mismanagement of funds is one reason. The renovation of Ramsis Station in Cairo was met with indifference, many believing it to be a failure and a waste of public funds that undoubtably benefitted certain officials and contractors. A governmental report revealed that only 8 percent, roughly 600 kilometers, of railway lines operate safely on electrical signals, and the rest less safely on mechanical signals. Rather than updating the station with new marble counters, the money would have undoubtably improved the safety of those tracks.

While the problem with infrastructure has been years in the making, it seems that no one is willing to take take responsibility for fixing these issues. A local watchdog group has accused previous as well as the current government officials with misspending two loans, the latest of which was received in 2011 and totaled at around $500 million. Meanwhile the victims of the recent crashes have received very little compensation, reminiscent of the 2008 landslides in East Cairo where 119 people were killed and several remain hundreds displaced, without and compensation or aid from the government.

Yet another cause of the crashes has consistently been human error. In the case of the Assuit bus crash, an error from the crossing alarm system along with negligence from both the bus driver and railway attendant caused the bus to collide with a train. Similar stories have been heard about other crashes, as in the most recent where two railway cars hit a cargo train despite several reports of safety issues previously raised with the cars. Another incident took place last week, when a conductor stopped a train at an unscheduled station. The conductor refused to continue as his shift was over but no replacement was available.

This is the story for so many governmental employees, over worked and underpaid. Yet also blamed for the shortcomings of the various ministries. The various staff meant to run traffic, public transportation and the public buildings are held accountable with issues that are very much forced upon them. Dependent on these jobs they are left with very few options. Employees working in government offices are often accused of slowing down bureaucratic procedures, but it can also been seen as a form of civil disobedience.

Doing a job slowly or inefficiently is a form of resistance to a system that is corrupt and itself inefficient, and while the train crashes were not purposeful acts of civil disobedience, the workers responsible for the errors are undeniably in a similar situation. All are manifestations of a system that has repeatedly failed to ensure the rights of it’s workers and therefore the safety of it’s people.

President Morsi is now under pressure to change that system, to tackle the vast infrastructural problems he inherited from past governments, as well as the various other structural problems. This no doubt requires immense changes in every governmental institution, a process that the president has yet to start.

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