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The Politics of Trains

[Train crash scene in Asyut. Image Source: O News Agency] [Train crash scene in Asyut. Image Source: O News Agency]

Amidst Israel’s ongoing “surgical” brutality in the Gaza Strip and authoritarianism’s slow, stubborn, yet very bloody demise in Syria, further tragegy and horror was delivered yesterday from an unexpected source.

At 7:00 on the morning of 17 November, a speeding train passing through Egypt’s Manfalut district of the southern governorate of Asyut, struck a busload of children. The bus driver drove across the tracks even though the warning lights and sirens were reportedly activated. An official, speaking anonymously, stated that the crossing was not closed. The horrific collision occurred in full view of a traffic policeman and a crossing guard, who had previously been the subject of citizen complaints for going AWOL while on duty. Witnesses say that on this occasion the guard was at his station, but asleep.

The train dragged the bus for a full three kilometers, in the process tearing it in half, twisting it, and flattening it. The first ambulance arrived at 9:00 a.m., a full two hours after the accident took place. By this time, fifty-one children lay in shreds. Only twenty of their bodies were retrieved whole. Parents identified their children by their clothes, since their corpses were torn apart or mangled beyond recognition.

Transport minister Rashad al-Mitini as well as the head of the Egyptian Railway Authority, Mostafa Qinawi, have already resigned. Families of the victims and other mourners, who spent the day collecting and burying body parts, have expressed their outrage at the government. They cordoned the Manfalut train station, preventing entry to Prime Minister Hisham Qandil and the ministers of Interior, Health, Education, and Insurance and Social Affairs.

The willful negligence and untethered incompetence that set the stage for this accident is deeply political. Egypt’s new president certainly understood that in February 2002 when he stated: “The accident reflects the massive neglect by high officials, including the head of Egypt’s Railway Authority, the Minister of Transportation, and the Prime Minister.” Ten years ago, Mohammed Mursi stood before parliament and gave an impassioned speech demanding the prosecution and punishment of the Prime Minister for the tragedy of the “train of death.” The worst disaster to date, the Al-Ayyat train heading to southern Egypt caught fire, killing at least 383 people. Today, Mursi faces the same criticism as his predecessors. His own “train of death” has shamelessly exposed the failing state apparatus.

Indeed, Egypt’s transport network has a disastrous safety record, not least because the maintenance of infrastructure and training of personnel are criminally deficient. Railway and road accidents claim shocking numbers of victims each year, yet nothing is done to improve conditions. It is not that funds are lacking: the government has pumped a reported LE170 million into redecorating Ramses central train station in Cairo, while successive transport ministers have repeatedly yet to no avail called for massive investments in rolling stock and signaling equipment to make the railways safer.

This year alone, even before yesterday’s tragedy, Egypt’s railways have had a disastrous record. In July, a train derailed near Giza, injuring fifteen people. Just this month, at least three were killed and more than thirty injured when a train crashed in Fayyum. Al-Tahrir newspaper cited an official as saying that ninety percent of trains were unfit for service and lacked brakes. It is well known that basic safety standards are ignored, especially when it comes to trains.

It is overwhelmingly the poor who die in Egyptian road and rail accidents. They do so in third-class trains and overcrowded minibuses, in ancient cars with no seatbelts, and in rickety service taxis on dark pothole-ridden roads where no one knows or cares to enforce traffic regulations. Their social status explains why there is virtually no official concern with improving infrastructure, training and supervision of personnel, or investment in public transport. Under Mursi as under Mubarak, the lives of the poor are worthless and the logic of the free market reigns supreme. 

Hundreds die, a station master is fired, a train driver is fined, and – for the regime – life goes on in shiny motorcades. In an amateur video that went viral a few days before the Manfalut train incident, the presidential motorcade comprised of twenty-four vehicles is shown obstructing traffic as the videographer laments the continuation of the old regime. For the poor, on the other hand, even the most mundane activities are increasingly deadly. This is not incompetence, nor even criminal negligence. It is corporate cost-benefit analysis at its most vicious. Fifty dead schoolchildren cost the state nothing. As summed up by a commentator: “My son went to demonstrate and came home in a shroud. He went to guard the borders and came home in a shroud. He went to a football game and came home in a shroud. He went to school and came home in a shroud.” In the new Egypt as in the old, to be poor is to be expendable. 

For many Egyptians, today’s tragedy confirmed their worst fears: there is nothing new about the new Egypt. Almost two years after people took to the streets to demand freedom, social justice, and human dignity, and oust the dictator obstructing these rights, the state has yet to revise its ambivalent stance toward the sanctity of human life.

With President Mohamed Mursi missing in action, government officials announced that the families of the dead children would be compensated to the tune of four thousand Egyptian pounds (approximately USD 660). Social networking sites were flooded with dismissive reactions. One asked: “Did you know that a child in Egypt costs less than an iPhone?” Another commented: “In December 2010 the state allocated USD 50,000 to every Russian tourist affected by “shark bites” [in Sharm El-Sheikh]. After the revolution of “bread, freedom, and social justice,” the state allocates five thousand Egyptian pounds to the families of children who were chopped to pieces under the wheels of the train in Asyut."

The public prosecutor has opened an investigation into the Asyut tragedy in order to determine responsibility. It is hard for most Egyptians to take these investigations seriously after previous investigations and trials examining well-documented crimes habitually failed to bring to justice any senior official. Such crimes include deadly attacks by security forces, after the 2011 uprising, against unarmed protesters in Maspero, Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Qasr El-Einy, Port Said, and many other locations.

“We the people are the red line,” Egyptians declared at every demonstration that followed the toppling of Hosni Mubarak. The slogan is meant to evoke the notion that the new Egypt is one of popular sovereignty, and that the dignity and rights of the Egyptian people are inviolable and will no longer be subordinate to the unrestricted authority of the ruling elite and bureaucratic centers of power. One can only wonder whether there is any “red line” in an Egypt where officials remain effectively immune from public accountability, generals are honored after committing heinous crimes, and the life of a child is worth five thousand Egyptian pounds. The Asyut tragedy is more than the product of the criminal negligence of a few. It is the manifestation of an unaccountable state that continues to evade responsibility toward its own people.

Mursi would be well-advised to heed the words he uttered a decade ago as the rest of us mourn the senseless killing of so many young children.

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