29 August - 4 Sept. 2002
Issue No. 601
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Recommend this page

Shaken, not stirred

In the aftermath of the earthquake that shook the capital this week, Fatemah Farag sorts out the dimensions of collective panic


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Clockwise from top: A child in Darb Al-Sheikh Khalil looks out at the rubble which comprises his neighbourhood; Mansour with his wife and children outside their house which has been closed off until demolition; scaffolding put up after the 1992 quake keeps the wall of the Shaykhoun Mosque from falling in Darb Al-Sheikh Khalil
Walking down the narrow alleyway of Darb Al-Sheikh Khalil in the Old Cairo district of Al-Khalifa, one cannot help but wonder how any of the dilapidated buildings that line the unpaved street remain standing -- especially after this Saturday night's quake which hit at 11pm and registered 4.7 on the Richter scale, to be followed shortly by an aftershock measuring 3.8.

Along Darb Al-Sheikh Khalil, three- to four-storey buildings with deep cracks in their walls lean against each other for support. Amidst these are lots filled with rubble -- the remains of similar buildings that once stood. Rusty metal structures hold up one side of the Shaykhoun Mosque -- a structure severely damaged by the 1992 earthquake.

"These houses fall by themselves," explained Eid Salem, a local carpenter. "They do not need a quake to damage them."

In a city full of precariously built buildings, only 50 houses were reported as having been damaged by this most recent of quakes; 44 of the buildings are located in the poor neighbourhoods of Al-Sayeda Zeinab, Moski, Shubra and Al-Gammaliya. One of the 50 was supposed to have been in Darb Al-Sheikh Khalil, but sorting the old damage from the new proved a futile task.

Despite the relatively limited damage, panic has been the order of the day. At the back of everyone's mind are the devastating effects of the 12 October 1992 earthquake which resulted in hundreds killed and seriously injured, not to mention LE4 billion in damage. Further, there is the public's inherent mistrust in the safety of the buildings in which they reside.

"Look at these buildings," exclaimed Madiha Mohamed, a housewife who lives in another poor Cairene neighborhood, Al- Husseiniya. "It is the will of God that they stand. He knows we have no other place to go. Can you imagine the terror we feel for ourselves and our children when a quake shakes this area? It is fright beyond imagination," she added. In her neighbourhood, people fled to the alleyways and made their way towards wider streets to evade potential danger on Saturday. Many spent the night in the open air rather than risk returning home.

Egypt is affected by two earthquake belts: the African-Horn Belt in the Aqaba Gulf area which is a low activity belt 390km away from Cairo. And the Helini Belt which runs across the west Mediterranean and affects the northern coast of Egypt, a distant 700km from Cairo. According to Ali To'ayleb, head of the National Institute for Geophysical Studies, "Egypt is safe earthquake-wise," pointing out that the level of activity measured by specialists indicates that there are no grounds for panic.

In the wake of the 1992 earthquake, the National Earthquake Network was established. Affiliated with the National Institute for Geophysical Studies, the network comprises 60 monitoring stations nationwide and is responsible for identifying areas with considerable quake activity and compiling a map of Egyptian quake zones. The National Earthquake Network is currently studying the site of the epicentre of last week's quake -- the general area between Khanka and Abu Za'bal, to the east of Cairo -- for a more detailed explanation of what happened this week.

Egypt has a history of shattering quakes. Between 2200 BC and 1899 AD there were 83 major quakes. For example, the quake of 1210 BC left a crack in the Temple of Abu Simbel and the statue of Ramsis II. A quake in 796 AD is said to have demolished the Alexandria Lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The Amoun Temple in Siwa was severely damaged by a quake in 1811 AD, and 50 people were killed in the Western Desert when a quake hit in 1955. But it is the quake of 1992 has left the deepest imprint on the Egypt of today.

Down the street from the home of Al-Husseiniya's Mohamed is a five- storey building whose inhabitants were evicted this week after one of its walls incurred yet another crack on Saturday night. The owner of the house is Mohamed Mansour, a government clerk. "This was my grandfather's house," he explained to Al- Ahram Weekly, "and the whole family continues to live here. So when the governorate asked us to remove a cistern and the top floor after the 1992 earthquake, we appealed the order," he recounted. Another order a few years later was also petitioned by Mansour and his family and remains unresolved in the courts; his case is one of many that have languished for years in the judicial system. According to official statistics, out of 56,000 orders for partial demolitions issued by the relevant authorities in the past few years, only 40 per cent have been implemented.

But then came this week's quake. "My wife was boiling milk in the kitchen and the kids were watching TV when we heard the wall crack and the earth shake beneath our feet. We ran out and the government officials came and sealed off the house. They say they will give us apartments elsewhere, but we have lived here all our lives and we are loathe to leave."

Adjacent to the offending five-storey building is a new 11-floor edifice. "This building is, of course, illegal in its height and proximity to other properties, but despite our repeated complaints to the relevant authorities the owner has been allowed to build even though the construction added to the damage of our building and others in the area. It is ironic that our building is the one to be pulled down while his will be allowed to remain," lamented Mansour.

In the wake of the 1992 quake in which 205 buildings fell and 3,759 buildings were severely damaged, it was "discovered" that 10,722 floors in Cairo were built without license in addition to 170 buildings which violated building codes. The Ministry of Housing concluded at the time that all in all, 96 per cent of the buildings in Cairo and 85 per cent of the buildings in Giza violated the building codes one way or another.

Specialists have long argued that what is more dangerous than the quake, is the current status of much of the country's housing. As early as 1999, a report released by Salah Hassaballah, former minister of housing, alleged that three quarters of the buildings across Egypt may well collapse in the course of the next 20 years as a result of insufficient maintenance. And this week, as emergency meetings were held at the Ministry of Housing, information was released to the effect that 180,000 buildings in Cairo and two million nationwide have been identified as being on the brink of collapse. For its part, the Cairo Governorate has formed 30 technical committees responsible for reidentifying all buildings in need of either strengthening or demolition.

Further, in a previous interview with the Weekly, Ezzat Sobeih, professor of architecture at Cairo University and head of the Egyptian Society for Earthquake Architecture, explained that to protect ourselves, Egyptians need to build according to different specifications -- specifications he detailed in a code available since 1988. However, he pointed out that the additional cost -- between three and 15 per cent of the total building cost -- in addition to a dearth of architects specialised in making buildings earthquake-safe has meant that the guidelines are rarely applied. And while the Ministry of Housing has its own code, specialists argue that even when implemented, it is based on calculations that underestimate the extent to which the type of land surface is susceptible to disruption from earthquake vibrations.

Mohamed is unfazed by all the ruckus. As she turned away from the alleyway where she lives in Al-Husseiniya -- named Al-Hadd, literally, to demolish -- she scoffed, "They [the officials] can say what they like. It is their problem if these buildings need to be strengthened or demolished. I can just barely feed my children."

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