Crashing by Design

Anyone who has ever ridden a train in Egypt is familiar with the phenomenon. Thousands of people squeeze into the dirty second- and third-class carriages, the seats are hard, moving from one carriage to the next requires considerable physical effort to clear a path and the smell of food wafts from one end of the train to the other. The overcrowded trains have always been a source of major disasters. The most recent occurred last month, when 40 people were killed after a train and a heavy truck collided at an intersection between Marsa Matrouh and Alexandria.

Traffic accidents are a national plague in Egypt. Last year more than 8,000 people were killed in accidents. In the last few years, an average of about 6,000 people have been killed and about 30,000 injured in such accidents annually. That's the reality when Cairo traffic operates under its own rules, without any connection to the laws of the state or the laws of nature.

Four and sometimes five lanes are squeezed onto a road where only three have been marked. Fast and sharp overtaking is part of the Egyptian DNA and horn concerts are the cause of the tremendous exhaustion felt by drivers who work two shifts a day at the wheel.

The government knows that, more than foreign policy or relations with Israel, traffic accidents dictate the relations between the regime and its citizens.

As such, it was the tremendous criticism of the government and the railroad authority after the 2002 train wreck that led President Hosni Mubarak to take the unusual step of ordering the transportation minister and the head of the railway authority to resign.

Now, however, the government has decided to adopt a new transportation law, which came into effect this week. Among other things, it stipulates punishments of up to half a year in prison and a fine of up to 2,000 Egyptian pounds (nearly four times the average wage) for anyone who violates the law. In particular, the new law is trying to prevent illegal stopping in the middle of the road or in places that obstruct the circulation of traffic.

It also allows police to put a wheel clamp on the car and impose a fine of 200 Egyptian pounds on anyone who removes it or keeps it.

The toughest provision in the new law stipulates that taxis more than 20 years old - and it is near impossible to find newer taxis - will become scrap metal or change their status and become private cars.

Ostensibly, this is a progressive law but it is doubtful that it is going to change the driving culture that has propelled Egypt to the top of the Middle East's accident charts. The reason is that the law contains a suspicious provision that has already elicited harsh criticism in the Egyptian press and undermines trust in the government's intentions.

The provision in question obligates all drivers to equip themselves with a first-aid kit containing items that will obligate them to take a first-aid course. The problem is that the kit costs more than 150 Egyptian pounds. When 4 million cars are required to be equipped with these kits, it is no wonder that the suspicion arises that the move is meant to grant more huge profits to a few importers.

The order reminds Egyptian drivers of the provision to wear seatbelts, as a result of which the belts' prices went up by a few times. Back then, some drivers paid the extortionate price to the seatbelt importers while others made themselves improvised seatbelts out of trouser belts. In a few cases, the more creative drivers made themselves T-Shirts on which a diagonal belt had been painted, in an effort to deceive the police.

The chairman of the Pharmacists Association, Dr. Mahmoud Abdel-Maqsoud, has therefore advised drivers not to purchase this kit. "It is better for drivers to pay the fine - at least then the money will go to the government and from the government to the citizens, instead of going directly into the businessmen's pockets."

The hatred of businesspeople, who are widely perceived as robbing the public, corrupting the government and enjoying huge benefits, is so profound that the businessmen themselves realize that it is in their interest to avoid being defined as such.

Last week it was reported that the Egyptian Railway Authority intends to install special carriages for businesspeople, equipped with comfortable seats, computer connections, telephones and of course prestigious catering services, for a high price. However, when the railway management began to use the term "Businessmen's Train," the potential customers rebelled and demanded that the name be changed. "Call it the Gold Train or the Diamond Train but not the Businessmen's Train. That name can arouse racism and discrimination against the poor."

Incidentally, this week the traffic police have had a hard time explaining what exactly the law requires and how they are to process violations - or for that matter what constitutes a violation under the new law. In the meantime, the feeling is that the new law is just another plot by the government and the business sector against the common citizen, rather than an attempt at preventing traffic accidents.

Another prison term for Ibrahim?

"Here? The system here is the Pharaonic system. That is, the government is a divine creation or god himself," Professor Saad Eddin Ibrahim told me in an interview in Egypt several years ago. "All I want is to replace the Pharaonic system with a democratic system." Ibrahim, who at the time was a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo, was also scornful of anyone who claimed that blocking human rights is no more than the action of a democracy that is defending itself. "It's interesting that this claim is usually advanced by someone who is not a democrat."

This argument is also used when the regime acts against nonviolent Islamic organizations. "The claim is that the religious Islamists will gather strength and revoke democracy. But for them to be able to revoke democracy, there first has to be democracy. So that there will be something to revoke," explained Ibrahim.

Ibrahim has been a troublemaker for the Egyptian government since 2000, when he tried to criticize the way elections are held and introduced into the lexicon the term goumolokhiya - a combination of goumhouriya (republic) and mulukhiya (kingdom) - to describe the nature of the Egyptian regime. The Egyptian authorities decided to punish him.

Their excuse to do so: financial irregularities at his research institute, whose publications included his research on forgeries in the management of elections.

Ibrahim was tried and sentenced to seven years in prison. He was released after three years following tremendous international pressure that led to the cancelation of the charges against him.

But the government is not giving up. This week Ibrahim was sentenced in absentia - he is in exile - to a two-year prison term. This time he is charged with damaging the country's reputation. The prosecution argued that Ibrahim's articles on the state of human rights in Egypt led to a freeze on some of the American aid and hence caused economic damage to the country.

Ibrahim has submitted an appeal, but it looks like the indictment and the trial attest to the nature of the system against which he has come out.