Railway service was introduced to Egypt more than a hundred and fifty years ago, in 1856. It was the second nation to introduce a railway after England, which created the first ever railway line in 1830. Egypt’s unique geographical location, as a trade route connecting Europe and Asia, contributed to the imperative of establishing a railway line—a process that preceded the digging of the Suez Canal. Robert Stephenson, son of the locomotive’s inventor, was tasked with implementing the project, and oversaw the procurement of all necessary equipment, before initiating the four-year project.
The train represents the model of punctuality and discipline with regard to time, comfort and safety. It travels with a time schedule and fixed predetermined routes at measured speeds; it is programed to stop at specific stations, takes priority/precedence in terms the right of way, and does not respond to random changes and unplanned surprises. It traverses its path with purpose and determination, mercilessly decimating all who stand in its way—so much so in fact, that it became an effective tool for suicide among those who despair from life, such as Anna Karenina, the heroine of Tolstoy’s novel.
The train is intimately tied to Egyptian culture. Consider geographical mobility, and the attendant social and economic mobility, such as the migration of rural residents to towns and the migration of urban residents to the capital. It is why the train station in Alexandria is named “Egypt’s station.” It is also tied with the separation of family and loved ones and has occupied a significant place in Egyptian art. Mohammed Abd El-Wahab singled it out in his song ” O train, tell me, where are you going?”
As the locomotive cuts through time and space, it demands an environment that regulates the behavior and interaction of individuals and institutions that stand in its path. Thus, a railroad crossing is not simply a place, but a mentality that has permeated into the national psyche. This mentality has a number of components that not only explain train wrecks, but also illustrate a common denominator in the way in which we confront issues of national importance. What follows are a few of these components.
- Dependency and the absence of critical thought. This is manifested, in the case of train wrecks, in the behavior of conductors who risk traversing the railroad crossing incorrectly, without any regard for the danger that results from this action; the taking of innocent souls and leaving injured and wounded in its wake, who suffer for the rest of their lives from this thoughtless act. This behavior is not confined only to the realm of trains, but is repeated daily on roads. It is a principal cause of accidents as drivers cross roads where they shouldn’t, and is mirrored in workplace injuries when professional safety codes in workshops and factories are disregarded, or when there is a failure to adhere to operating standards as in the overloading of ferries, exceeding height regulations in building construction, and the failure to maintain fire hydrants.
- Pride overriding public order. Perhaps one of the most surprising numbers is that there are approximately two thousand railroad crossings built by locals in a piecemeal fashion in addition to the official number of crossings, 1350—perhaps as a challenge to the trains that represent public order. This is similar to the cafes that occupy pavements and clothing vendors who go a step further and occupy some of the most important roads in downtown Cairo. Demonstrators’ use of violence, driving the wrong direction on one-way streets, or the failure to use seat belts, are also manifestations of the pride taken in challenging public order.
- Not confronting problems until they boil over. This happens with the maintenance of railroad tracks and developing railroad crossings, and also is an administrative pattern present in education, reform of the economy and public media outlets, construction on agricultural land, encroachment of slums and the systematization of tuk-tuks and microbuses.
- Reproduction of past mistakes and weak institutional memory. This is evident in the repetition of train accidents, but also in the reproduction of the negative aspects of the public sphere, fixed prices, and the continued use of trailers that have caused accidents.
- Lack of honesty with the public and the unrealistic nature of government statements. A case in point is the discourse on the national plan to develop seventy-seven railroad crossings, when the total number amounts to 1350 official and two thousand unofficial crossings, is an act of patronization that cannot be but deliberate. This statement is similar to that on the restructuring of subsidies, to ensure it reaches those that need them most—a statement that Egyptian Ministers of Supply and Internal Trade have been careful to emphasize throughout the ages. The same applies to the former president’s infamous statement concerning self-sufficiency with wheat. Such statements, of which there are many, only serve to distort the face of government, and make it more difficult to find a citizen who trusts it, then it is to find a phoenix.
- Prioritization of appearance over substance. A case in point is the attention paid to the development of train stations rather than trailer maintenance or the safety of railroad crossings. This pattern has repeated itself in other areas, as was the case with the emphasis placed on updating the logos of government institutions, without developing the actual system of work in those institutions, or spending large proportions of development-project budgets on exorbitantly priced opening ceremonies.
- Assigning blame to others and scapegoating. Train accidents usually produce high casualty numbers and provoke reactions that are strong and loud at the beginning, only to fade without being translated into transformative policy. Those in charge then evaluate whether to force the resignation of the Minister of Transport on one hand, so as to absorb the anger of public opinion despite their being convinced of his competence, or on the other hand, to accept political blame for the Minister’s continuation in his post, with all the risks that brings. As a result, the Minister knows that he may be forced to resign at the first occurrence of a train wreck, even if he is not responsible for it, and even if it is common knowledge that he does not have the resources to prevent it. This has also occurred in many other instances, beginning with the 1967 war, extending to the collapse of buildings in violation of the construction code, and ending with the fuel crisis.
Does this railroad-crossing mentality determine the actions of Egyptians in government and in the general public?
The railroad-crossing mentality is a collection of gaps in the Egyptian psyche in need of a revolution. By that I do not mean a revolution of one political faction over another, but a cultural revolution through which all Egyptians revolt in order to heal the rift that has befallen us. We must put aside politics and postpone the struggle that will determine who will steer the ship; until we have plugged the gaps, there are great risks that it might sink before we leave the harbor.
Magued Osman is the CEO and managing director of the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research, Baseera. This article originally appeared in Al-Shorouk.