Advertisement
News

Battered nation struggles to recover EGYPT: COPING AFTER THE QUAKE

CAIRO — CAIRO -- The 12th baby of Naemah Mohammad Hashim wa born in an orange government tent staked in a field, and they named her "Zilzal," which means earthquake in Arabic.

The namesake of Egypt's latest woe arrived to the impossibly large family of a shoeshine man without a home. It was fitting.

Advertisement

Officials running the camp for quake victims welcomed the small addition to Egypt's staggering burdens with typical equanimity. They gave her a party.

The news from Egypt offers little else to celebrate: The Oct. 12 earthquake left thousands homeless . . . angry poor rioted in the streets . . . Islamic radicals in the south have turned more violent . . . tourists are being shot.

Advertisement

Any of these could lead to catastrophe for a poor country already staggering under the weight of extremes: too many people, too little money, too much congestion, too few solutions.

But Egypt muddles along. Only the wild-eyed predict the government will fall. Resentment is offset by resignation. Religious extremism in the countryside runs against a secular grain in Cairo, which straddles the Nile and still dominates the country.

Just the business of getting by in a city of 15 million smothers even the grief of an earthquake or the anger that would generate revolution.

In the crowded slums of Cairo, the buildings lean over narrow streets. They are colorless blocks of three, five, 10 stories, pocked with small balconies and draped in a shabby netting of utility wires, clotheslines and television antennas.

Below on the street, there is an occasional pile of broken cement, a balcony or cornice sloughed off in the quake by a weary old building. Here and there a whole structure has surrendered to the ground.

No one pays it much attention any more. A falafel vendor carries on business from a cart next to the rubble where some of his former customers may still be buried.

At one such pile, an old woman in yellow pokes at the buried remains of her apartment. Each day, a bit more of the heap is scratched away by thieves digging for something else to steal.

"I go to the police station, but what can they do?" says Fathia Shehata, who lived in the apartment for 20 years.

Advertisement

The full measure of pain has not yet been felt from the earthquake and the events that came after.

About 3,000 families are living in tents in government camps for the homeless. Another 5,000 families may join them when the cracks in their homes are inspected.

Some 30,000 buildings are said to be damaged, among them 1,000 schools. Already overcrowded classes are now doubled up in morning and afternoon sessions.

Just as the country was seeking its balance, Islamic extremists further jolted its security by ambushing a van of tourists in southern Egypt Oct. 21.

Sharon Hill, a 28-year-old British woman, was killed. The shooting boosted government jitters about the growing strength of the Islamic movement. Official nerves already were raw from challenges to authority in Cairo.

People angry with the slow relief effort clashed with police in several poor neighborhoods a week after the quake. The government, already viewed as inept and corrupt, suffered by comparison with Islamic groups which moved in swiftly to provide tents, food and blankets.

Advertisement

Stung by the comparison, President Hosni Mubarak stepped up the government's efforts and ordered all others closed down.

One of the disturbances was in a mouse-maze of narrow alleys called Bulaq. This is a ghetto in the old sense: an elbow-to-elbow place where poverty has not yet stamped out pride and neighbors look after each other.

By one account, residents clashed with police Oct. 18 when authorities closed an Islamic relief center. This is the kind of story that worries the government: the swollen poor rising up to pelt police with stones in defense of Islamic fundamentalists.

But Bulaq is not gripped with Islamic fervor. On these pleasant evenings, the streets are full and friendly. There are few veiled women, few men with symbolic Islamic beards.

A mosque near the scene of the disturbance calls out evening prayers, but the response is only moderate.

Only a few of the card games on wobbly tables of coffee shops stop. Vendors with carts toppling from heaps of used clothing continue their brisk business. A shopkeeper wraps fried Nile perch in slips of newspaper, "carry-out" for his customers. Unmuffled scooters snarl past the mosque, leaving a trail of black smoke.

Advertisement

Corruption's consequences

But if the people have not rushed to embrace Islamic fundamentalism, they still have a deep distrust of the government.

Egypt's government is notorious for its impenetrable bureaucracy. Its giant ministries are honeycombs of cavernous, scruffy offices jammed with bare desks and numbed clerks. The places have the air of a bus station when a blizzard has blocked the roads.

Nothing moves. There are no computers, a few old-fashioned phones. Each clerk demands paperwork, but files are stacks of folders spilling their contents into a communal pool of neglect. The offices close for the day at 2 p.m.

Government functionaries are paid poorly. Often, it takes a bribe to get something done, or not done. The earthquake showed the consequences of that corruption.

A quake of the same 5.9 magnitude hit Los Angeles in 1987 and left eight dead. In Cairo, the death toll is at least 550. Many buildings that collapsed were in violation of safety standards and building codes.

Advertisement

"They get permission to build eight stories and they build 13," says Magdi Abdullah, an official of the architects' and engineers' union. "They are just given a fine. On the average, it's 20,000 to 30,000 pounds [$6,500 to $9,700] for each story. Of course it's worth it."

Everyone blames others. Contractors say their suppliers cheat them with substandard cement and iron. The government says contractors thumb their noses at the building codes. The public sees inspectors taking bribes.

"This earthquake produced bad psychological effects on people because we uncovered lots of weaknesses in the structures and the government," says Badawyi Gamal, editor-in-chief of the Al-Wafd newspaper.

Cairo nights

A few blocks from the ornate People's Assembly building, Mohammad Yahia Hassan, 39, has a paper from the government ordering his family out of their second-floor apartment, and promising that before the end of the year they will get a place to stay.

While waiting, Mr. Hassan, his wife and three children sleep on the grimy cement of the courtyard. One side of the courtyard has become their toilet.

Advertisement

No one is there to enforce the eviction notice, so in the day, when they can see, the family sneaks back into the cracked, precarious building. "We have no place else to go," Mr. Hassan says.

Two floors above, Mohammad Ali Helmi, 68, also finds courage from the daylight to stand guard in his apartment, but at night he, too, retreats to the sidewalk. The old man is a figure of quiet dignity. But as he talks, the creases of his face become riverbeds of tears.

"Where am I supposed to go? This is all I had to show for 70 years," he sobs. "The government officials sleep in their nice places, while I sleep on the street."

Shafika el-Sakti watches him in sympathy. She brings her fingers to her mouth as though savoring some delicacy.

"The government has swallowed all the money," she says in bitterness. The earthquake has shaken loose her caution. "Use my name," she says. "I'm not afraid of the government."

On the edge of the desert, 12 miles from the center of Cairo, Sayed Sharaf thinks the government has responded well. He runs a camp for quake victims in a converted youth center. In the yard, nearly 400 families live in tents.

Advertisement

People drift in and out of his office. Periodically a woman with a bullhorn leans out of the window to page someone from the tents for a call on the camp's single telephone line.

Mr. Sharaf believes in this tragedy there is some good. He sees a spirit of helpfulness. People are donating huge bags of clothes, baskets of food, and even money.

Mr. Sharaf also believes the quake will force a shotgun marriage between thousands of poor Cairo residents and the apartments built by the government at Medinat Salaam, a new "suburb" within sight of his camp.

Vacancies in the desert

It is one of those inscrutable ironies of central government planning that even in this city with such an acute housing shortage that people live in shanties and cemeteries, there are enough spare apartments for 10,000 families displaced by the earthquake.

The apartments in places like Medinat Salaam -- which means City of Peace -- are rows of drab block housing planted in the desert in a government scheme to relieve the central city.

Advertisement

The government-subsidized new suburbs have not been grabbed up. Even poor families choose to stay in crowded, familiar tenements near the city center rather than new apartments far out of town. But now, Mr. Sharaf said, he expects to move earthquake families into those new homes.

"In four weeks, this will definitely be finished," he said of the temporary camps. "Everyone will be in an apartment."

There are problems in this vision. For many people, the arithmetic of such a move does not add up.

Mervat Fayed, 27, lived with her parents, two sisters and a brother in a shabby walk-up near central Cairo. The four-story building now sags in the middle and has been condemned by the government.

Miss Fayed used to walk 15 minutes to her job six days a week in a medical laboratory. She earns 70 Egyptian pounds each month, about 89 cents a day. Her family has been given a new apartment on the outskirts of Cairo. But the bus ride takes two hours each way, and the daily fare and breakfast costs nearly 60 cents -- two-thirds of her salary.

"We will have no money," she said. "But our choice is to move or sleep on the streets."

Advertisement

Immediately after the quake, officials said the Pharaonic monuments were unscathed and still open for tourism. It was fiscally prudent haste: Tourism brings in $3 billion, one-fourth of Egypt's foreign income.

But nine days later came the attack on the van of tourists in Dayrut, 170 miles south of Cairo. An Islamic extremist group, said to be behind two earlier attacks this year, warned tourists to stay out.

"This was a message for the Western countries," said Nabil Abdel-Fattah, an expert on the Islamic movement with the Al-Ahram Center for Political Studies.

If so, it was heard loud and clear.

"The earthquake didn't hurt our business, but the shooting did," said one travel agent. "We had a British tour group of 116 scheduled to come in last week. Only 20 came."

The government has tried damage control: This was an isolated incident, it said, off the usual tourist route, an exception to the rule.

Advertisement

"Our airports are open, our tourist sites are open," said Nahed Gad, an official of the Egyptian Tourist Authority. "Everything is normal."

It may seem so. The graceful minarets of this city again offer a mournful call to prayer, answered rudely by a blare of traffic.

At Tahrir Square, a vortex of motion at the heart of the city, the usual players have returned: the harried commuters, the veiled women, the tight-jeaned students, the shoe shiners and hustlers and hawkers, the sad salesmen who open a blanket to offer combs or gum or cheap socks.

But a smartly dressed woman admits she cannot close her eyes without feeling the earth move. A young office worker admits she is living on the sidewalk. She is afraid to tell her boss, though the story is in her eyes.

The poor, already schooled in suffering, were tumbled out of their flimsy homes in the largest numbers. Sabah Madyan, 24, cuddling a 2-month old baby, ponders her fate in a government tent.

"What will happen to us in the future?" she asks. She answers her own question: "That is in the hands of God."


Advertisement