• Reports
  • August 23, 2008
  • 12 minutes read

Egypt parliament fire fuels scorn of government

Egypt parliament fire fuels scorn of government

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) — A fire that gutted the upper house of parliament this week has fueled Egyptians” scorn for their authoritarian government, with critics saying it is unable to protect its own buildings and maintain basic infrastructure.


Firefighters appeared ineffectual Tuesday as they battled the blaze raging through the top floors of the 19th-century palace that houses the Shoura Council. Dozens of fire trucks rushed to the scene, but at least in the early hours, only a few sprayed water on it. Firefighters mainly stayed outside, while the flames spread and ravaged the interior.


Army helicopters dropped buckets of water from the nearby Nile River, but were seen to often miss the building. They did get enough water on it to collapse part of the roof, with little effect on the fire. It took 18 hours to extinguish the blaze.


One firefighter was killed and a dozen were injured.


Interior Minister Habib el-Adly ruled out arson or terrorism. Initial reports said the blaze was sparked by a short-circuit in an air conditioning unit. The fire recalled a string of past accidents that were thought to have been caused or exacerbated by negligence.


In 2006, a ferry crossing the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia sank, killing more than 1,000 Egyptians. A parliamentary investigation found the ferry had been allowed to operate while failing to meet minimum safety requirements and both the company and government were criticized for failing to respond quickly to the sinking.


The acquittal of the ferry”s owner on negligence charges last month raised an outcry that authorities were protecting the wealthy businessman.


In 2002, a fire destroyed a train in southern Egypt, killing 370 people, mostly poor passengers in third-class cars, and there have been several deadly train collisions since.


“It”s the same confusion, the same accusations (of negligence) and the same denial,” columnist Magdy el-Galad wrote Thursday in the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, comparing the parliament blaze to the earlier disasters.


Ibrahim Eissa, editor of opposition Al-Dustour daily, criticized the “deterioration of our system, which has become incapable of protecting even its buildings from fire and disasters.” The opposition Al-Wafd daily called for those responsible for the fire to be put on trial.


The government of President Hosni Mubarak has already faced discontent this year with a series of labor strikes and riots over shortages of subsidized bread, a staple of Egypt“s largely impoverished population. Fights in long bread lines caused several deaths.


The fire gutted the interiors of the top two floors of the palace, destroying Islamic decorations and the main hall where the Shoura Council holds its sessions. The hall holds great symbolic weight for Egyptians because it was the scene of the 1881 trial of nationalist hero Ahmed Urabi and the signing of the first constitution in 1923.


Media reports have focused on poor training of firefighters and the absence of sprinklers or a fire management plan for the building. Those features are rare throughout Egypt, where safety rules are nonexistent or lax. Few buildings in Cairo even have smoke alarms.


Sami Mahran, parliament”s secretary-general, said the building did have fire alarms, which went off, and “parliament”s internal fire department hurried to control it.” He and other officials told The Associated Press the fire moved quickly, fed by the wooden paneling and ceilings, many carpets and a new paint job.


Egyptians are widely skeptical of parliament, which is seen as a rubber stamp for Mubarak”s government. And unlike earlier deadly disasters, few Egyptians seemed to mourn the destruction.


“I”m just sorry parliament wasn”t in session,” one man told The Associated Press Tuesday night as he watched the blaze, refusing to give his name for fear of trouble with authorities.