Disaster, death and the degenerate lassitude that overtakes fasters after their sumptuous sunset meals abhorred the pundits
The disaster that hit the impoverished shantytown of Dweiqa horrified the country and left commentators aghast. The official press took stock of the catastrophe, highlighting government efforts to rescue the residents. The independent press, however, was highly critical of the slow reaction of the authorities and their lack of foresight in predicting the cataclysmic collapse of the poorly constructed houses in the slums nestling beneath the dangerous limestone rocks of the Moqattam hills overlooking the eastern parts of Cairo. Dweiqa is one of the poorest neighbourhoods and slum districts of the Egyptian capital and most of the makeshift houses are liable to be destroyed if any man-made or natural disaster strikes.
"A catastrophe in Dweiqa", ran the front page headline of the official daily Al-Akhbar . The paper stressed official efforts to move the victims of the disaster to temporary tents and displaced people's camps in neighbouring parts of the city. "Huge boulders of the Moqattam hills fall on a shanty area, leaving behind 23 dead, 46 injured and 38 houses destroyed", the paper's headlines screamed the day after tragedy struck. Other headlines read: "President Mubarak orders that the victims of the rockslide be taken care of."
Independent papers painted a gruesome picture of the victims and their misery and utter despair. Hundreds of people were rendered homeless overnight and the irony is that the disaster struck in Ramadan, making the woes of the unfortunate victims even more calamitous.
"A catastrophe in Moqattam hills", ran the headline of the daily opposition Al-Wafd. "A 1,000-tonne boulder collapses on 50 houses in Dweiqa", ran another headline. The deployment of the nation's forces, both civilian and military, was acknowledged. "The Armed Forces have taken part in rescue efforts", the paper reported.
Many pundits were furious that the slow reaction of the authorities at first seemed to stem from the fact that the victims were poor and hapless. The daily opposition Al-Dostour ran the headline: "The Moqattam fell on the heads of the poor".
Meanwhile, the daily leftist-leaning Al-Badeel reported that, "some of the victims trapped under the debris are calling their relatives via mobile phones, and security forces are preventing residents of the traumatised district from taking part in rescue efforts." The paper quoted one resident as saying: "the rescue teams failed before in rescuing the Shura Council from fire, so how will they be able to rescue us?" The paper quoted a security source who said: "it is difficult to determine the number of casualties because Dweiqa is a slum area."
The Dweiqa disaster highlighted the plight of the inhabitants of the shantytowns that encircle Cairo. The citizens of the rundown slums of the Egyptian capital are fed up with being marginalised and ignored. They would like to see more interest expressed by the authorities in their deplorable conditions of living. They cannot continue to live on the fringes of the capital.
And, the same goes for the rural poor. This week, emphasis focussed on rural development. High- powered officials were determined to demonstrate their commitment to eradicating rural poverty. Still, certain pundits were unconvinced by the authorities' efforts to make a show of their resolve to improve living standards in rural areas. Commenting on the visit paid by Gamal Mubarak, the president's son and head of the National Democratic Party's influential Policies Committee, to three of the poor villages in the sprawling Sharqiya governorate, Fahmy Howeidy wondered in his daily column in Al-Dostour, "In what capacity did Gamal Mubarak visit these three villages? He is neither the head of the state, nor the head of the government, or even the secretary-general of the ruling NDP." Howeidy added that, "the 'movie' visit was meant as a PR campaign for Gamal Mubarak, rather than connecting with the [poor] people." Clearly Howeidy was sceptical of the entire exercise.
The beauty and the beast tragedy in which Lebanese belle Suzanne Tamim was butchered by the henchman of Egyptian billionaire Hisham Talaat caused a furore in the Egyptian press. According to Al-Akhbar, Talaat reiterated his innocence, insisting that he had great faith in the Egyptian justice system.
The photographs of the slain Lebanese beauty and Talaat were plastered on half a dozen papers, both official and opposition. According to Al-Wafd, Talaat and his alleged accomplice, former police officer Mohsen El-Sokkari, plotted four times the murder of Tamim in London. Well, hell hath no fury like a lover scorned.
The papers insinuated that the motive was unrequited love.
The murder of Tamim has held the nation spellbound. This is indeed a case of murder, mystery and suspense. According to the official daily Al-Ahram, "El-Sokkari confessed to plotting [Tamim's] murder in London either by a car accident or by throwing her from a balcony."
In much the same vein, the ever-juicier television fare that characterises Ramadan dismayed many pundits. Satellite television has taken the Arab world by storm, and according to the commentators, it is a most dangerous form of self-indulgence and escapism.
Editor-in-Chief of Al-Akhbar Mohamed Barakat, in his column "Without Hesitation", noted that the holy fasting month of Ramadan should not be made an excuse for ostentatious expenditure and benightedness. He criticised people who indulge in watching soap operas during the month that should be reserved for prayer and meditation and spiritual regeneration.
"We compete with each other on how to spend time on senseless entertainment and conspicuous consumption during Ramadan," Barakat lamented. "Feasting and wasting precious time is sinful," he added.
Commentators appalled by skyrocketing inflation and its impact on the poor shared these sentiments. The alarming increase of those relegated to abject poverty also preoccupied newspapermen. According to Al-Wafd, Minister of Economic Development Othman Mohamed Othman conceded that there has been a 9.5 per cent rise in the number of poor "because of the latest wave of price hikes." Unprecedented high inflation rates have had a direct impact on the low- income groups in the country and it is the most vulnerable members of society who bear the brunt of the economic crisis. The inflation rate in Egypt soared to 11.7 per cent in 2007-2008. Minister Othman suggested that a special fund be allocated to help the poor and needy. He noted that inflation, poverty and unemployment are the three most menacing problems facing Egypt today.