Protest Mounts in Egypt Over Pace of Quake Relief
CAIRO — ONE week after an earthquake killed hundreds and injured thousands more, the Egyptian government is stepping up its relief effort and appealing for calm.
But signs of unease are growing over the failure to provide shelter for thousands of people still forced to sleep in the streets. Over the weekend Cairo experienced its worst civil unrest in several years as hundreds of people clashed with riot police in the city's downtown late Saturday. Riot police moved into the slum housing district of Boulaq after protesters burned tires and went on a rock-throwing spree, damaging shops, cars, and offices.
On Sunday, in an apparent response to the riots, President Hosni Mubarak pledged to provide the homeless with new houses within six weeks. "We should be patient," he told reporters. "These protests do not yield any results." Mr. Mubarak added that many poor Egyptians, whom he called "opportunists," were taking advantage of the disaster to get new apartments.
Officials played down the severity of the protests on Saturday night, blaming Islamic fundamentalists for stirring up anger toward the government. Information Minister Safwat al-Sharif alleged that extremists were exploiting the disaster, inciting rioting and destruction.
But others said the demonstrations were led by working-class people, many of whom were left without any shelter after the tremor destroyed houses and rendered many other dwellings too shaky to live in.
"If the government is unable to house people there will be problems," says Mohamed Sayed Ahmed, an Egyptian columnist. "It's now not only the houses which have fallen down, but the number of houses that people are afraid will.
"If there are today 15 million people in Cairo, I don't think there are more than 1.5 million who live in safe houses. This is dynamite. Whether it triggers something or not is yet to be seen."
Saturday night's protest started at the municipal offices of Cairo West, which administers many of the poorest and hardest-hit areas of the city. Families needing assistance must first complete lengthy paperwork at government offices before being eligible for aid. "We tried to speak to the people," says an Interior Ministry official. "We told them, `Please wait,' that it's impossible to get them homes so quickly. But they kept on screaming and shouting and then ran into the street."
The following day, several hundred people had returned to line up at the offices. But none appeared optimistic that any relief was in sight.
"They've completely exhausted us and we're sleeping in the street," said Fattoeh Mahmoud, the father of three. "I've been here three days."
RAHAB AHMED added: "We are seven, with another in my stomach. We don't have any other place to go. Everybody is tired. Everybody is exhausted."
In the densely populated neighborhoods of the poor, many families have moved into the dank, narrow streets that run past the doorsteps of wall-to-wall buildings and shops.
Just minutes before this reporter arrived in one district a three-story wall collapsed into a mound of brick and mud. Many families had abandoned their damaged homes and were facing another night sleeping outside.
Several buildings have fallen each day since the quake. Many more structures are expected to collapse in the weeks ahead.
Farouk Abdel Tawab, a government employee, moved his wife and five children out of their severely cracked home the day of the quake. "We're living in the street," he said. "We want to sleep in safety, to have somewhere to live." Mr. Tawab, with monthly earnings of $45, said he has no choice but to wait for government assistance.
But, like other residents who crowded around to tell their stories, Tawab said no one in his area had received any help. Nor had any government officials visited the district, he claimed.
Tension over the past days' deaths, and fears of still more aftershocks, have left many short-tempered and exhausted. At one point a low rumbling sound sent everyone on the street stampeding in panic. When the crowd stopped running there was laughter at the false alarm. But there were also tears on some faces.
Along the winding streets, the lower walls of several-story buildings, some dating to the last century, had begun to buckle. Young women carried huge loads of possessions out of the leaning buildings.
But there was little evidence of any other precautions. The garbage-strewn alley was awash with small children, laborers, and idle young men. Like so many parts of Cairo, the street serves as local cafe, playing field, and office space for sweatshops employing child labor. Cars are few and most traffic consists of horse- and donkey-drawn wooden carts.
The roof of an 800-year-old mosque had collapsed, but the tea shop nestled against its outer wall had no plans to move. Nearby workmen at a lumber shop sat on the stoop of a long-condemned building that had suffered new damage in the quake.
"We work here. It's how we get our bread," said one of the men. "Where should we go?"