CAIRO // The Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, accepted yesterday the resignation of the minister of transportation, Mohammed Mansour, over a train accident on Saturday that killed 18 people and injured more than 30. "Minister Mohammed Mansour resigned out of his feeling of political responsibility for the accident," Magdi Radi, the spokesman of the cabinet, said in an interview yesterday.
"This is the first time that a minister resigns and the president accepts his resignation since this government came to office in the summer of 2004." The electricity minister, Hassan Younis, will take over the responsibility of the transport ministry until a new minister is appointed, Mr Younis was quoted as saying by Egypt's official Mena news agency yesterday. Mr Mansour announced his resignation at a press conference yesterday after meeting the prime minister, Ahmed Nazif.
The resignation followed a stormy session in Parliament on Monday over the minister's responsibility for the collision of two trains in Garza village, al Aiyyat, 50km south of Cairo. The crash reportedly happened when a buffalo crossed in front of one of the trains, forcing it to stop suddenly. Railway officials failed to inform the driver of the other train. Monday's parliamentary session witnessed a fist fight between Abdel Rehim el Ghol, a member of the ruling National Democratic Party, headed by president Mubarak and Mahmoud Megahed, a legislator of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's strongest opposition group, after the latter called for sacking of the transport minister.
"You are rude," Mr el Ghoul shouted at Mr Megahed before running up to him and hitting him, according to a front page report yesterday in Al Ahram, the largest state-owned daily. Egypt's national railway system is the biggest in the Middle East, with about 5,000km of track, according to Egyptian National Railways, but is notorious for accidents. Egypt's former transport minister, Ibrahim al Demeri, was forced to resign in February 2002 following the country's worst ever train fire, which claimed more than 370 lives, also in al Aiyyat, as poor workers were heading home to upper Egypt to celebrate Eid with their families.
Still, resignations by officials, especially ministers, are rare. Like most ministers in the cabinet, Mr Mansour is a businessman; his company is the sole distributor for General Motors in Egypt. He survived a maelstrom of criticism in February 2006 over a ferry accident that killed more than 1,000 people in one of the deadliest disasters in modern maritime history. During Monday's session, Mr Mansour pledged he would "take decisive and deterrent measures against those responsible for the [train] accident".
Also on Monday, the prosecutor general ordered the arrest of the two train drivers and the man who is in charge of the railway's control station who failed to notify the second train about the halt of the first. He had reportedly left the station unmanned as he went to the bathroom. Media have been demanding punishment for those responsible. "It's no longer acceptable, under any circumstances, for this negligence, which is responsible for the citizens' death in train accidents, to continue," said an editorial in Al Ahram yesterday. "It's no longer possible to remain silent while listening to promises and statements, even TV ads that propagate for the improvement of train service, while the truth is something else, which was revealed in the al Aiyyat train accident."
The transport ministry spent millions of Egyptian pounds on ads promoting rail travel during Ramadan. Some criticism broached the issue of government corruption. The independent daily Al Masry Al Youm published a cartoon on Monday in which a buffalo, sitting with a policeman at his desk in the police station, says: "It's not the fault of the transport minister, nor is it the fault of the worker who left the railway control station. And it's also not the fault of the train driver who hit me and it's not the fault of the government, which doesn't learn from its mistakes. I'm the main defendant, imprison me."
In the same box, the cartoon shows a thief on the phone with the transport minister. "Be assured, Mr Minister," the thief says, "we paid the buffalo 1,000 pounds to shoulder sole responsibility for the case." email@example.com * With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse