Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 February 2006
Issue No. 782
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed

A bridge across the Red Sea

In the wake of the ferry disaster, Mohamed Sid-Ahmed discusses the causes of this and similar "accidents" and comes forward with a new proposal

Government assurances that Egypt has embarked on a process of genuine democratic reform ring somewhat hollow as, 10 days after the Al-Salam 98 sank, we are no closer to learning who was to blame for the accident. Of course, accidents do happen, but when questions are raised as to the ferry's sea- worthiness, the owning company's safety record, the crew's preparedness to deal with the situation, the failure of the automatic alarm system to function and the government's slow response, 400 souls onboard without fire extinguishers, water pumps, enough lifeboats or a working distress signal system, not to mention the fact that, at 35 years old, it was no longer fit to carry human passengers, only cargo and animals.

It is all too easy to lay the full blame for the disaster on the owner of the ferry and his staff, but they are certainly not the only culprits. There is no longer any doubt that all the tragic accidents that have been claiming lives over the last few years -- including four involving boats belonging to the same shipping company --could have been avoided if proper regulations and safeguards had been put in place. Crimes of negligence remain unpunished thanks to the fatalistic approach of the Egyptian people, the maalesh mentality that makes them accept one outrage after another as an expression of the will of God. But it seems their patience is running thin, as borne out by the violent clashes that broke out in Safaga between furious relatives kept waiting in intolerable conditions for news of their loved ones and riot police. The ferry disaster was an accident waiting to happen, but it seems the owners of the vessel were also counting on fate to keep their antiquated vessels afloat.

Generally speaking, the social contract between citizen and state has been perverted from one in which government rests on the consent of the governed to one which finds its expression in an implicit deal between citizens and state that goes something like this: "we citizens will turn a blind eye to your rigging of the elections if in counterpart you turn a blind eye to my evasion of taxes, my bribing of public officials, etc."

The decline of the rule of law provides an ideal breeding ground for corruption. It also creates a political climate that distorts democracy and reduces it to a formality. Without transparency, accountability and the vigorous prosecution of those who, either through negligence or corruption, are responsible for tragic and unnecessary disasters there can be no moving forward on the road to reform. In a way, the ferry disaster symbolises Egypt's inability to circumvent the obstacles impeding its progress towards reform, its inability to make the required "crossing", as it were, because any reform process cannot be based on a perverted social contract.

The passengers on the Al-Salam 98 were exposed to unspeakable horrors and we owe it to their memory to ensure that they did not die in vain. The necessary lessons must be drawn from this dreadful experience to avoid any similar tragedies in future. Many Egyptian pilgrims and workers use the relatively, cheap ferry service to travel to and from Saudi Arabia, and it is unacceptable that they should have to risk their lives on floating death traps like the Al-Salam 98. Strict controls must be put in place to prevent unnecessary loss of life, whether as a result of fires on trains and in theatres, collapsing building, sinking shops and other eminently preventable "accidents" that have become all too common in recent years.

One last thought here: why not consider the possibility of building a bridge across the Red Sea? This idea has been raised by scientists and so is presumably feasible from the technical point of view. We are after all living in an era of amazing technological progress with endless possibilities. It is also an era in which the Arab oil producing countries have amassed fabulous wealth. Surely they could use some of it to finance the construction of such a bridge. As Britain and France managed to build a tunnel under the English Channel, so too can the Arabs build a bridge over the Red Sea.

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