Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 June 2019

Egypt: New transport minister vows to upgrade ailing railway

President Sisi promises full support for the general-turned-minister in overhauling chaotic transport sector

President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, the Egyptian President appointed the new minister on Sunday. AFP
President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, the Egyptian President appointed the new minister on Sunday. AFP

Egypt’s president on Monday swore in an army general and close aide as minister of transport, a day after both men pledged on live television to swiftly reform the country’s ailing railway service, following the uproar over an accident at Cairo’s main train station that killed at least 22 and injured scores.

President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, himself a one-time general elected to office in 2014, nominated Maj Gen Kamel El Wazir for the job on Sunday after he promoted him to a Lieutenant general. Parliament confirmed his nomination hours later.

“I am putting one of the best army officers in charge of that [railway] facility,” President El Sisi said about Minister El Wazir. “The challenges are huge and people are in a hurry to see results,” he added, vowing that the railway network will be as “good as new” by June next year. Addressing Maj Gen El Wazir, he said: “You will have my full support and that of the Egyptian people…for the facility to succeed.”

Egyptians are not unfamiliar with the new minister, who had hitherto led the military’s giant engineering arm that President El Sisi placed in charge of the massive infrastructure projects he has undertaken since taking office. During regular meetings televised live to review progress of these projects, Mr El Sisi consistently called on Mr El Wazir to explain delays or future plans. “Kamel!” the president would often yell, prompting the general to spring to attention before asking the silver haired officer to speed up timelines or resolve problem.

On Sunday, Maj Gen El Wazir affectionately referred to Mr El Sisi as his “brother, president and teacher” after the Egyptian leader bestowed on him the rank of a Lieutenant general.

The February 27 accident happened when a speeding train engine car loaded with 6,000 litres of diesel slammed against a platform barrier in the middle of Cairo’s busy Ramses train station. The impact ignited the fuel, causing a blast and a fire that killed at least 22 people and wounded scores.

The engine car was involved in a soft collision with a similar vehicle minutes before the blast, prompting the driver to disembark to argue with the other driver. He did not shut off the engine, allowing it to break free and speed toward the platform. Authorities have arrested six railway employees, including the driver. They now face charges of manslaughter and damaging public property. The six have been subjected to drug tests – the results came back negative except for one employee, a control room operator.

Responding to media reports about the use of drugs among transport workers – a video clip widely shared online last year, purported to show two railway employees smoking weed and dancing in the driver’s cabin of a moving train – President El Sisi said proposed amendments to civil service legislation will allow authorities to run drug tests on public sector employees. Anyone who tests positive will be instantly fired, he said.

“We will no longer tolerate [state employees using drugs]. We will hold [offenders] accountable, not harshly, but rather under the law that we all agree on,” said Mr El Sisi.

The gross negligence behind the accident and the loss of life have fuelled popular discontent, some of which targeted the government, questioning its spending priorities and whether it was doing enough to ensure the safety of the millions of Egyptians using trains on a daily basis. The pro-government media attempted to deflect blame off the government, focusing instead on a deeply entrenched culture of negligence and apathy.

Maj Gen El Wazir’s predecessor resigned just hours after the accident, but that did not do much to reduce the public outrage, leaving the new minister with the difficult task of reforming an antiquated and undisciplined service used by an estimated 300 passengers every year and, according to Mr El Sisi, needs some $14 billion to upgrade.

“I will endeavor, and may God support me, to upgrade the entire transport sector, not just the railways,” Mr El Wazir said Sunday, as the president looked on.

Updated: March 11, 2019 09:38 PM

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