When it rains it pours…
By Maria Golia in Cairo
On the rare occasions when it rains in Cairo, people come out on their balconies to watch. The showers are usually brief and localized; some parts of town get doused, others remain untouched. Falling as it does through the layer of dust and pollution that crowns the city, the rain is muddy; some people on their balconies are taking in their laundry so they won’t have to wash it a second time (it’s happened to me and the splotches were indelible). Since few buildings have working drainpipes, the roofs become swimming pools, a dangerous situation for both the people that live in rooftop shacks and old storage rooms like my neighbours, and those like me on the floor below.
Cairo has no drainage system so the streets are flooded after strong showers, which typically occur during Egypt’s brief winter (December-February) but usually dry up within a day or two. Meanwhile everything gets filthier than it already was. The water activates standing garbage accelerating its decomposition, cars and sidewalks are splattered with muck. But these are minor inconveniences compared to the results of the flooding that occurred both in Alexandria and other coastal towns twice in the last two weeks, including the deaths of at least thirty people, some electrocuted by fallen wires, others trapped in houses or cars.
After the first rain (October 26) took Alexandria unawares, the recently appointed governor resigned and the army stepped in to do the clean up. But several more days of rainfall came before the towns had had a chance to recover. Few people have insurance in Egypt; most businesses are informal, so the economic loss is hard to calculate, but it is safe to say that tens of thousands of families will take a hit, and for many it will be the coup de grace. After the second spate of rain, President el-Sisi visited Alexandria to reassure the citizens, and the cabinet allocated EGP 6 billion to upgrade the area’s infrastructure. But when 17 citizens were arrested as Muslim Brotherhood affiliates who allegedly sabotaging Alexandria’s drainage system by blocking it with cement it was clear that once again, whoever was actually responsible for the long-term neglect that left the coastal cities so vulnerable would never be held accountable.
That same week a Russian airplane en route from Sharm el Sheikh to St. Petersburg crashed in the Northern Sinai, killing everyone onboard. Local authorities have yet to fully endorse the findings of foreign forensic teams who say the crash was caused by a bomb. The results of this tragedy will take time to unfold, certainly for the families of those lost in the wreckage but also for Egyptians whose livelihood is linked to the tourism industry, which has suffered ever since the 2011 uprising. With flights to Sharm el Sheikh temporarily suspended between the UK, Russia and Egypt, the economic losses will intensify the hardship many Egyptians are already experiencing due to joblessness and inflation. The plane crash comes less than two months after a group of picnicking Mexican tourists and their Egyptian guides were mistaken for terrorists and bombed from the air in the eastern desert.
Like so much of the world, Egypt is waging a war against terrorism, particularly in the Sinai Peninsula where many Islamic insurgents, as well as Egyptian policemen, soldiers and civilians have been killed. Most Egyptians seem willing to accept the need for the ongoing nationwide security crackdown, the thousands of arrests, imprisonments and military trials in addition to over one hundred ‘disappearances’. Many feel the government is just doing its job to keep them safe. But when cities are undone by little more than a hard rain and when Egypt is the scene of a terrible tragedy, no matter what the cause, people are apt to wonder if that job couldn’t be done a lot better. Egypt’s leaders are unaccustomed to answering to the people, but peoples’ questions, needs and demands are growing day by day.