The art of mismanagement
Too many disasters and not a single plan, argues Dena Rashed
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From top: relatives waiting for rescuers to retrieve the bodies of their loved ones after Al-Salam 98 ferry disaster; the wreckage of the Qalyoubia train; one of many buildings that collapsed due to the 1992 earthquake; a scene from the 1990s floods; rescue workers moving charred bodies out of the 2002 Upper Egypt train
On 21 August, rather than getting on with business as usual, Egyptians stopped to consider the 20th train crash since 1995 -- a major tragedy that claimed 58 lives and left 143 injured in Qalyoubia. For many, the event prompts a new look at crisis management, bringing the ubiquitous theme of negligence back to the fore. Indeed it is difficult to imagine a year without it resulting in at least one disaster -- and even when they are natural, the way they are dealt with seems to ensure a maximum of distress. Take the 1992 earthquake: some 600 casualties and thousands of demolished homes; national decree 132 soon followed, with a view to establishing a dedicated crisis- management council headed by the prime minister, which would distribute responsibilities among government agencies and strategically plan for the future. Yet the maritime disasters of 1994, 2001 and 2002 as well as last February -- the sinking, respectively, of Al-Qamar Al-Saudi, Al-Salam, Al-Salam 95 and yet another Al-Salam 98 -- have established the inefficacy of any such efforts. Likewise the railway, with the notorious Kafr Al-Dawwar accident of 1998 killing 48 and injuring 80; in 2002, a fire disastrously broke out aboard a train, setting off a string of further rail catastrophes. But last week's event also heralds a review of a whole range of disasters from major road accidents to houses collapsing, notably the Nasr City building which came down in 1995, and plane crashes; on every occasion a committee is formed, an ambitious plan of action put into place; and every time, barring the immediate aftermath of a catastrophe, nothing comes of it. Ironically MPs within the latest committee, drawn up following the Qalyoubia tragedy, were demanding the establishment of a new crisis-management council even as one has been in operation for six years; this throws the inefficacy of such bodies into particularly sharp relief: headed by the then prime minister Atef Ebeib, a crisis- management council formed in 2000 was actually given all the necessary sanctions and facilities to act, yet it has been so ineffective even MPs are ignorant of its existence.
Crisis management -- as defined on Wikipedia -- involves defining and planning a response to a crisis, then confronting and resolving it. The sheer history of train and maritime accidents in Egypt establishes the failure of any such mechanism. Indeed the rail tracks have been in such a state of continuous deterioration a regular third-class commuter, let alone an expert, could have predicted the Qalyoubia disaster. This is further complicated by the statements Minister of Transportation Mohamed Mansour has made, to the effect that his demand for a railway upgrade budget of LE8 billion had not been granted when the accident occurred, to which the relevant officials responded by pointing out that the sum will be provided over a two- rather than a five-year plan. According to Shura Council member Shawqy El-Sayed, a legal authority, the council has provided no sign of success: "Sadly we act on a crisis, never beforehand. We have preset slogans with which to respond to crises, which is why we remain doomed. The decision to form the council came forth in the wake of the 1992 earthquake, but has yet to be formalised." Modernisation, El-Sayed argues, requires not only the body but creative people to man it -- talented people willing to take chances. Yet there has been no shortage of dedicated research centres: at the Nasser Military Academy (NMA), a centre has taught crisis management, to be both military and laymen, since 1989; Ain Shams University offers a diploma in this department. It seems none of the theory has had practical use, however: victims of the Al-Salam 98 ferry accident spent a whole day in the Red Sea, and their relations sought them out in morgues all across the country. The armed forces, arguably capable of working faster than any other party, have often had to deal with crises like floods and provide sea rescue, notably the 1992 earthquake in Cairo -- as per a 1958 law. And according to Major General Gamal Hawash, the head of the crisis management department at Nasser Military Academy, "it should not be the rule to depend on the Armed Forces to intervene. In times of war, the Armed Forces should not be preoccupied with civil responsibilities. It is rather the failure of the civil system that has led to this kind of dependence. The previous council," Hawash went on to point out, "consisted of 23 ministers, who definitely could not be available because of other duties. There were no assistants, and decisions made were not followed through."
It is true that the defence forces are counted on to act in times of crisis, but crisis management, Hawash argues, is technically outside their brief. A crisis is a threat to the prevailing order, and requires a speedy decision and an abundance of information, particularly regarding the future: "There should be a plan, a scenario, as well as training to prepare for a crisis -- a comprehensive system covering all governorates. An institution is but a limbless body; it should have branches everywhere, and a strong database to analyse and predict." Ordinary people must also contribute, Hawash added, suggesting a voluntary basis. A young science, crisis management is as old as ancient Egyptian strategy -- with Hamourabi's illustrations of how to manage a flood. Such would have helped with the 1995 floods in Sinai, which resulted in the destruction of 500 houses, leaving 3,000 people homeless. Hawash also emphasised the relevance of the Qur'an to crisis management, with parables like Noah's ark fitting the bill. For his part professor Mahmoud Khalil, head of the journalism heritage authentication centre at Cairo University, brought up the media -- a crucial dimension of the issue. "Objectivity," Khalil said, "as well as comprehensive data are both essential. We've seen many flaws in the coverage of various crises, with Al-Salam 98 ferry on Egyptian TV being a prime example; Arab satellite channels had the edge." He contrasted this with national TVs exclusive coverage of the Dahab bombings -- one of a few occasions on which the Egyptian media was praised for a prompt response; the scoop was actually accomplished thanks to the chance presence of a national TV crew in Dahab to cover a sports event. In rather more cases Egyptian TV is not highly regarded for reliable information about disasters, whether natural or man-made. The media's protective role should help with crisis management, not the other way round: "There should be more variety in the sources and greater attention to first-person testimonies." On occasions like the 2005 slaughter of two families, children and all, in Qalyoub, for example, witnesses are likely to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder: "Coverage patterns have also led to rumours -- the Nile contamination scare due to the Bird Flu, for example." Most importantly, Khalil goes on, journalists and reporters should be trained on how to prepare for a crisis -- something still lacking in Egypt. "Dealing with a crisis is all about training. Reporters should get training abroad, where standards of professionalism are reasonably higher -- something that remains essential to crisis management."
Crisis persists, Khalil continues, but so does mismanagement; however horrible news of death, we should not be prevented from dealing with it. Recent news heralds the drawing up of seven national committees specialised in such crises as houses collapsing, transportation accidents, maritime accidents, transport of hazardous material as well as natural disasters. The idea would be to reduce the cost of disaster, both socially and economically, as well as prevent it. The families of the Qalyoubia accident victims have received, from the Ministry of Social Solidarity, LE5,000 per death, LE3,000 per serious injury, besides LE30,000 from the government. Calls for a national fund to compensate the victims have also surfaced. "If compensation is but an impact-reducing strategy," Hawash wonders, "is it a way to handle a crisis?" The foundation of a national centre for crisis management is underway," he adds: "a permanent council is going be formed soon, with representatives of different government departments." (Cabinet officials could not be reached before going to print for commenting on the present status of the council).
Another pattern of mismanagement could ensue, however -- if we forget about train accidents. "Intensive press coverage in the first few days after an accident has been a regular characteristic of the media," says Khalil, "and after several weeks you find hardly any news about it." The Al-Salam 98 ferry case has yet to be closed, but already it is in the process of being forgotten; and it is part of the responsibility of the media to keep its memory alive until it is resolved: "the state did not even call for days of mourning for the victims of Qalyoubia -- it would seem to want the public to forget the crisis, and forget about those who died."