Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 April 2006
Issue No. 791
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Influencing fate

A parliamentary report concludes that corruption and negligence sank the Al-Salam ferry, Gamal Essam El-Din reports

A heated debate erupted in the People's Assembly following the submission of the report of the fact finding committee charged with investigating the circumstances that led to last February's sinking of the Al-Salam 98 ferry, in which a thousand passengers perished.

The report heavily criticised Mamdouh Ismail, the owner of the ferry and an appointed member of the Shura Council as well as the chairman of the ruling National Democratic Party's (NDP) Heliopolis office. The report said that Ismail, who fled to London following the disaster, and corrupt officials at the Transport Ministry, were largely to blame for the tragedy.

In reviewing the report Hamdi El-Tahhan, chairman of the parliamentary fact finding committee accused Ismail's company -- Al-Salam for Maritime Transport -- of gross negligence. Not only had there been inadequate maintenance of the boat, and no provision of emergency equipment, "when the ferry sank it was initially believed that it was carrying 1,417 passengers which proved untrue."

"Testimony provided by passengers who used the Al-Salam ferry," said El-Tahhan, "confirmed that it regularly carried more than 2,000 people" despite the fact that maritime transport instructions restrict the number of passengers on this kind of ferry to less than 1,200.

"Some of the survivors told the parliamentary commission that they thought the Al-Salam ferry could have been carrying more than 2,700 passengers."

"It was also found that the validity of the life jackets on the ferry had expired five years ago," said El-Tahhan.

The report warned that during the pilgrimage season ferries crossing the Red Sea were invariably overcrowded and this could lead to a repeat of the tragedy.

According to El-Tahhan although Ismail, the owner of the ferry, and his son were informed that it was in trouble in the early hours of 3 February, they did not bother to report this to the Port Authority in Safaga nor, later, did they contact authorities at the Saudi port of Dabba, from which the ferry had left, to ask why it had not reached Safaga on time. Even worse, they instructed the captain of the Saint Catherine ferry, which they also own and which was passing beside the sunken ferry, to continue with his journey and not stop to help the stricken boat.

The fact that Ismail wields a great deal of influence, the report said, "allowed him to evade maritime transport safety regulations". Ismail, a member of the board of the Red Sea Ports Authority, is accused of using his position not only to bypass safety regulations, but to virtually monopolise transport in the Red Sea, giving passengers no other choice than to travel on his company's dangerous vessels.

The report shied away from mentioning that Ismail's position as an appointed member of the Shura Council, and his post within the NDP, compounded his influence, though several opposition MPs have pointed out that his close relationship with Zakaria Azmi, the presidential chief of staff, had helped him in furthering his business empire. Whatever the channels through which Ismail exerted influence, the fact remains that he was able to flaunt with impunity the 20 miles from the port of departure limit placed on Salam 98.

The report also finds that the tardy response to news of the unfolding tragedy, from both the boat's owners and senior officials, including President Hosni Mubarak's Chief of Staff Azmi and Air Transport Minister Ahmed Shafiq, had contributed to the death toll.

Azmi and Shafiq both received reports that the ferry was in trouble. Port authorities had picked up an SOS message from the stricken boat and immediately relayed the information to the Algerian Embassy in Cairo which informed Azmi and other concerned officials, urging them to take quick action. It was a recommendation that was inexplicably ignored.

"Battling corruption and negligence requires the taking of hard political decisions," said the report, "but they must be taken in order to save the lives of thousands of Egyptians who will otherwise fall victim to natural and man-made disasters."

The report urged the government to learn the hard lessons contained in the tragedy of the sinking of the Al-Salam ferry, not least the urgent need "to reform and restructure the maritime transport sector".

While some MPs alleged that NDP officials had intervened to prevent the fact-finding committee from using harsher language against state officials. El-Tahhan stressed that the commission had had a free hand in collecting information and formulating the report.

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