Sifting through the embers
Preliminary investigations suggest negligence or an electrical fault caused the fire which destroyed the Shura Council building on Tuesday, reports Gamal Essam El-Din
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A HELL OF A DIFFERENCE: A long night of fire-fighting ended in a smog-choked sky over the famous dome of the parliament buildings, leaving one person dead and 13 hospitalised
Officials from the Ministry of Interior and the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) rushed yesterday to dismiss rumours that a terrorist attack was the cause for the blaze that burned the 19th-century home of Egypt's consultative upper house, the Shura Council.
During a visit to the scene of the fire yesterday morning Interior Minister Habib El-Adli ruled out "subversive or terrorist acts". In a press conference on the same day Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif said that a technical committee, including engineering experts from the Arab Contractors Company, is to be formed to investigate the cause of the fire and assess the extent of the damage.
Prosecutor-General Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud led the team around the charred buildings yesterday morning in order that they could prepare a preliminary report on the causes of the fire.
President Hosni Mubarak left his summer rest house in the Northern Coast resort of Borg Al-Arab for Cairo and held an urgent meeting with senior government officials and parliamentarians yesterday at which he announced that the state would foot the repair bill. Earlier, the Chairman of the Shura Council and NDP Secretary-General Safwat El-Sherif said that, "businessmen will pick up the challenge of renovating the [200-year- old] building."
Mohamed Farid Khamis, a textile tycoon and chairman of the Shura Council's Industrial Committee, said he was ready to contribute LE10 million towards the renovation costs.
El-Sherif and the speaker of the People's Assembly, Fathi Sorour, downplayed the effects of the blaze, saying that both houses would work to ensure the 2008/2009 parliamentary session -- due to begin in the second week of November -- starts on time.
El-Sherif dismissed rumours that the Downtown headquarters of the Shura Council would be scrapped in favour of a new building in East Cairo's new city of New Cairo.
Ibrahim Mahlab, director of the Arab Contractors Company, announced that work on restoring the premises would begin very soon and use the latest techniques.
Sorour emphasised that the damage to the People's Assembly building was confined to the third floor and that both the museum and the main chamber were unscathed. Ahmed El-Ammawi and Abdel-Rehim Nafie, deputy chairmen of the Shura Council, added that files and original documents, especially those chronicling the parliamentary history of Egypt, had been saved on CD.
Employees of both the Shura Council and the People's Assembly were instructed to stay away from the parliamentary buildings.
The blaze erupted at 5.30pm on Tuesday, sending thick black smoke billowing into the skies of Downtown Cairo. Flames spread from the third floor and it took 50 fire engines eight hours to control the fire. The Ministry of Defence sent three helicopters in a bid to speed the operation but by 1am only 80 per cent of the fire had been extinguished. The movement of fire engines was restricted in the narrow streets, and by yesterday there were still fears that the smouldering remnants of the fire might re- erupt or that the second and third floors of the building could collapse.
That the 19th-century building contained so much wood helped stoke the fire. One employee evacuated from the building told Al-Ahram Weekly that the cause of the flame could be either an electrical short-circuit or the explosion of one of the gas butane cylinders used by caterers.
By press time on Wednesday afternoon, it was reported that one fireman died and 13 others had sustained slight injuries. Five employees were taken to nearby Mounira hospital, where eight firemen also received treatment, suffering from the effects of smoke inhalation.
The blaze completely destroyed a number of parliamentary committee meeting rooms used by both the Shura Council and the People's Assembly. The third floor was home to the People's Assembly's foreign affairs, tourism and culture, agriculture, youth, housing, and national security committees. It also accommodated the legislative and constitutional affairs, education, agriculture and economy committees and a media centre. The Shura Council's second floor included a "wall museum" of archive pictures chronicling two centuries of Egypt's parliamentary and political history as well as the general meeting chamber known as the Mubarak Hall.
The Shura Council building, commonly referred to as the Irrigation Building, was constructed in the mid-19th century by Khedive Ismail to house the Ministry of Irrigation. It was transferred to the Shura Council in 1981 and is listed by the Supreme Council of Antiquities as a historical monument.
The People's Assembly building opened on 15 March, 1924, hosting the opening session of Egypt's first parliament which comprised the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Shura Council is composed of 246 members, a third of whom are appointed by the president.
Preliminary reactions from political forces in Egypt predictably evoked conspiracy theories, with the finger being pointed variously at the government and leading parliamentary officials.
Despite official confirmation ruling out any foul play, Mohsen Radi, a journalist and a member of the parliamentary group of the Muslim Brotherhood in the People's Assembly, speculated that "a criminal act might have been behind the fire".
"Arson is a safe way in Egypt for corrupt officials to get rid of important documents and files and in the case of the parliamentary fire these could be documents related to the sinking of the Red Sea ferry," Radi claimed.
Hamdi El-Tahhan, chairman of the assembly's Transport Committee, dismissed such allegations as absurd. "It is ludicrous to allege that the fire was caused intentionally to destroy documents about the lost ferry. The fire erupted in the Shura Council which had nothing to do with the ferry. The assembly's own report into the disaster was very critical of the government and included all the relevant documents."
Alaa Abdel-Moneim, an independent MP, questioned just how the budget for renovating the Shura Council building, a project that lasted from 2004 to 2006, had been spent, given that there was no integrated anti- fire security system.
He claimed that leading officials of the two houses are politically responsible for the fire.
Hamdeen Sabahi, a leftist MP, added his voice to the criticisms. "There is a general sense of Schadenfreude and anger towards the regime and a feeling that officials deserve what happened."
Sabahi argues that the failure of the concerned authorities to contain the blaze early enough is indicative of a much wider incompetence. Commenting on pledges made by businessmen that they would cover the costs of renovation, Sabahi said this yet again demonstrates the unhealthy relationship between wealth and power and the dominance of businessmen over the political scene.