Battered nation struggles to recover EGYPT: COPING AFTER THE QUAKE

November 01, 1992|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Staff Writer

CAIRO -- The 12th baby of Naemah Mohammad Hashim wa born in an orange government tent staked in a field, and they named her "Zilzal," which means earthquake in Arabic.

The namesake of Egypt's latest woe arrived to the impossibly large family of a shoeshine man without a home. It was fitting.

Officials running the camp for quake victims welcomed the small addition to Egypt's staggering burdens with typical equanimity. They gave her a party.

The news from Egypt offers little else to celebrate: The Oct. 12 earthquake left thousands homeless . . . angry poor rioted in the streets . . . Islamic radicals in the south have turned more violent . . . tourists are being shot.

Any of these could lead to catastrophe for a poor country already staggering under the weight of extremes: too many people, too little money, too much congestion, too few solutions.

But Egypt muddles along. Only the wild-eyed predict the government will fall. Resentment is offset by resignation. Religious extremism in the countryside runs against a secular grain in Cairo, which straddles the Nile and still dominates the country.

Just the business of getting by in a city of 15 million smothers even the grief of an earthquake or the anger that would generate revolution.

In the crowded slums of Cairo, the buildings lean over narrow streets. They are colorless blocks of three, five, 10 stories, pocked with small balconies and draped in a shabby netting of utility wires, clotheslines and television antennas.

Below on the street, there is an occasional pile of broken cement, a balcony or cornice sloughed off in the quake by a weary old building. Here and there a whole structure has surrendered to the ground.

No one pays it much attention any more. A falafel vendor carries on business from a cart next to the rubble where some of his former customers may still be buried.

At one such pile, an old woman in yellow pokes at the buried remains of her apartment. Each day, a bit more of the heap is scratched away by thieves digging for something else to steal.

"I go to the police station, but what can they do?" says Fathia Shehata, who lived in the apartment for 20 years.

The full measure of pain has not yet been felt from the earthquake and the events that came after.

About 3,000 families are living in tents in government camps for the homeless. Another 5,000 families may join them when the cracks in their homes are inspected.

Some 30,000 buildings are said to be damaged, among them 1,000 schools. Already overcrowded classes are now doubled up in morning and afternoon sessions.

Just as the country was seeking its balance, Islamic extremists further jolted its security by ambushing a van of tourists in southern Egypt Oct. 21.

Sharon Hill, a 28-year-old British woman, was killed. The shooting boosted government jitters about the growing strength of the Islamic movement. Official nerves already were raw from challenges to authority in Cairo.

People angry with the slow relief effort clashed with police in several poor neighborhoods a week after the quake. The government, already viewed as inept and corrupt, suffered by comparison with Islamic groups which moved in swiftly to provide tents, food and blankets.

Stung by the comparison, President Hosni Mubarak stepped up the government's efforts and ordered all others closed down.

One of the disturbances was in a mouse-maze of narrow alleys called Bulaq. This is a ghetto in the old sense: an elbow-to-elbow place where poverty has not yet stamped out pride and neighbors look after each other.

By one account, residents clashed with police Oct. 18 when authorities closed an Islamic relief center. This is the kind of story that worries the government: the swollen poor rising up to pelt police with stones in defense of Islamic fundamentalists.

But Bulaq is not gripped with Islamic fervor. On these pleasant evenings, the streets are full and friendly. There are few veiled women, few men with symbolic Islamic beards.

A mosque near the scene of the disturbance calls out evening prayers, but the response is only moderate.

Only a few of the card games on wobbly tables of coffee shops stop. Vendors with carts toppling from heaps of used clothing continue their brisk business. A shopkeeper wraps fried Nile perch in slips of newspaper, "carry-out" for his customers. Unmuffled scooters snarl past the mosque, leaving a trail of black smoke.

Corruption's consequences

But if the people have not rushed to embrace Islamic fundamentalism, they still have a deep distrust of the government.

Egypt's government is notorious for its impenetrable bureaucracy. Its giant ministries are honeycombs of cavernous, scruffy offices jammed with bare desks and numbed clerks. The places have the air of a bus station when a blizzard has blocked the roads.

Nothing moves. There are no computers, a few old-fashioned phones. Each clerk demands paperwork, but files are stacks of folders spilling their contents into a communal pool of neglect. The offices close for the day at 2 p.m.

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