Cairo disaster leaves many blaming Mubarak

Many Egyptians complain the government is not doing enough to save slum-dwellers buried in a Saturday morning rock slide that killed at least 31 people.

Asmaa Waguih/Reuters
Residents search rubble in Mansheyet Nasr shanty town in eastern Cairo on Sunday. A rock fall there killed at least 31 people Saturday.

The day after massive boulders, some larger than houses, tumbled down a Cairo cliff and crushed much of a city slum, killing scores, frustration continued to grow over the government rescue effort that residents say is more focused on security than on saving lives.

By Sunday, more security officials than rescue workers converged on the Mansheyet Nasr slum where at least 31 people have died and hundreds remain buried. Since the collapse on Saturday morning, clashes between locals and police have been intermittent, with residents saying the government wasn't moving fast enough.

Witnesses at the scene reported Sunday that many of the buried are still alive and that some are making cellphone calls to their relatives from underneath the rubble.

"They are doing nothing to help us, not the police, not state security – nobody has done anything," says Gomaa el-Khodary, a young man standing in the shade of a one-room brick house.

The episode is one of many high-profile disasters or accidents in recent years that have eroded public faith in the government's ability to handle emergencies and stoked the anger that everyday people feel toward the regime of Hosni Mubarak, who has been president since 1981.

This is the second time in a month that Egypt's headlines carried news of a calamity and accusations of incompetence. In August, an electrical fire ripped through the stately 19th century building holding the upper House of Parliament. And in recent years, Egyptians have been killed when poorly constructed building have collapsed and overloaded ferries have capsized.

"The most dangerous thing is not that these disasters occur, but that there is no plan to deal with them. Parliament burnt down, and that is the most secure and sensitive part of Cairo. The government had no plan to deal with a disaster in this neighborhood. They have failed in the rich areas and now they have failed in the poor areas," says Diaa Rashwan, a political analyst at Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

Mansheyet Nasr is a vast, unplanned slum community that sits in between high, unstable cliffs and the train tracks. It is home to an estimated 1.2 million people in a city of 17 million people that is dealing with a severe lack of housing. None of the slum's houses are officially registered with the state and the government does not provide most of them with basic services like water and electricity, so many people improvise systems for water, sewage, and electricity.

It is unclear what caused the rock slide, but some speculate that those improvisations, combined with construction on top of the plateau, may have eroded the rock face and contributed to its collapse. The rock slide began between 8 and 9 a.m., when many residents were sleeping.

Police began evacuating the neighborhood on Sunday and confused and distraught local residents lined the sides of the roads. Some sat next to piles of their earthly possessions – an old arm chair, a chest of drawers – while others simply held beaten-up boxes of food or shopping bags of clothing.

Haidar Baghdadi, the parliamentary representative for the area, told the Associated Press that 388 apartments of a newly constructed nearby housing complex would be made available within 48 hours to those who lost their homes.

"The local council is gathering the names of residents to compensate them with these other apartments," he said.

But residents remain distrustful of the authorities.

"The authorities are not saving anyone, its all people from the neighborhood pulling bodies out from the rubble," says a woman called Besehsian, standing in the shadow of a high earthen berm carrying train tracks that tightly hug one side of the neighborhood.

Ali Mohamed Ibrahim says that all he wants is for the government to remove his family's bodies from the rubble of their eight-story apartment building, which was crushed by the boulders.

"My wife and three children are under the rubble, and all we want is for them to bring back their corpses," he says angrily.

"The authorities always tell us to stay calm and just wait for our lives to get better, but we should all learn a lesson from what happened here," he says to a gathering crowd of neighbors. "No religion approves of what the government has done to us. Mubarak has to do something to help us. Shame on Mubarak!"

• Material from the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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