Egypt is a speeding train about to crash

The latest train tragedy is just another sign that Egypt is heading towards a major disaster.

Train Accident in Cairo
Firefighters and onlookers gather at the scene of a fiery train crash at the Egyptian capital's main railway station on February 27, 2019 [Anadolu]

Wednesday’s train crash at Cairo’s main railway station was more than a horrible accident. It was an avoidable tragedy.

Although a fight between train conductors may have been the immediate cause of the crash and fiery explosion, the primary cause is that Egypt’s rail system has become a relic of premodernity.

According to Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), the country suffered more than 12,000 train accidents between 2006 and 2016 – an annual average of 1,100.

For many years, experts have pointed out the absolute necessity for government spending on transportation, including the railway system, which has long suffered from decrepitude and underfunding. The current administration of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has largely ignored these calls.

In 2017, el-Sisi berated Transportation Minister Hisham Arafat in a televised discussion after he suggested that significant funds should be allocated to rebuild the railway system, particularly in Upper Egypt. He argued that Egypt’s government would be better off putting 10 billion Egyptian pounds ($570m) in the bank and earning 10 percent annual interest than spending the money to modernise Egyptian railways.

At the time, el-Sisi’s remarks were received critically by Egyptians, many of whom depend on the railways for daily commutes. On average, Egypt’s 9,570km-long train network transports some 1.4 million passengers every day.

Following Wednesday’s tragedy, Egyptians took to the internet to mock el-Sisi’s 2017 remarks and blame him for what happened.

It is true that Egypt’s transport infrastructure was crumbling long before el-Sisi took power, and it is also true that any Egyptian government with meagre means would struggle to quickly modernise the nation’s railways, roads, bridges, and hospitals, among other areas that badly need reconstruction and upgrading.

But it is also true that in his five years as president, el-Sisi has been badly mismanaging the economy, squandering money on infrastructure schemes of dubious value.

One of his most ambitious economic projects – the Suez Canal expansion project – was carried out hastily at a cost of more than $8.5bn. El-Sisi ignored calls for a feasibility study, as well as the advice of international economists who said the project would, given stagnant international demand, be a waste of money.

At the time, the Egyptian president promised that the expansion project would more than double annual revenues, to $13bn annually by 2023. The most recent data suggests that the project is not generating anywhere near this amount.

In 2018, the canal generated about $6bn in revenue, an amount that represents only a marginal increase over 2013, the year before the expansion project began. When revenues are adjusted for inflation, which in the summer of 2017 reached as high as 30 percent, it turns out there have been almost no gains.

The Sisi government has also invested some $45bn in a new capital city, which will primarily benefit the nation’s elites. The project, which will feature a large park, megamall, and the tallest tower in Africa, has been widely criticised by experts who believe Egypt has more pressing needs.

The Egyptian army has been the primary beneficiary of el-Sisi’s economic vision. The military, which owns the firm developing the new capital city, controls businesses in a wide array of industries, including transportation, construction, tourism, engineering, bottled water, and furniture, among others.

Although some macro-level economic indicators have improved under el-Sisi, micro-level indicators show that life has become much harder for the average Egyptian. A sharp reduction in fuel and electricity subsidies, introduced as a prerequisite for an International Monetary Fund loan, has made it difficult for many Egyptians to pay for essentials. Inflation has been a major issue as well, with prices of basic goods rising dramatically since 2013. Under el-Sisi, the Egyptian pound lost more than half of its value.

Since the Sisi-led coup of 2013, Egypt has been propped up by billions of dollars in grants from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. However, given the volatile oil market and the ongoing challenges Riyadh is facing with its Vision 2030 project, this financial flow is unlikely to continue.

More importantly perhaps, Egypt’s political system does not lend itself to an economic revival. State institutions are largely inefficient and corrupt, with an outdated and oversized bureaucracy and a penchant for opaque decision-making.

Moreover, Egypt is steeped in a military dictatorship, with constitutional amendments likely to allow el-Sisi to remain Egypt’s president through at least 2034. The government has systematically eliminated all forms of political opposition, imprisoning and harassing political leaders and activists, and cracking down on dissent within the ranks of the army and the pro-Sisi political elite. Human rights abuses are worse than ever

At the same time, el-Sisi has also failed to contain Egypt’s terrorism problem. This is significant, particularly given that his 2014 presidential campaign was predicated largely on re-establishing order and security. Yet to this day, Egypt continues to suffer from a growing number of attacks against Coptic Christians and the population at large.

As the political and socioeconomic situations in Egypt continue to worsen, repression will also likely intensify in order to keep the Egyptian population from rebelling again. The country is moving like a speeding train towards a major disaster.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.