For seven years, I lived three floors above a main bridge in central Cairo that connects the two branches of the Nile. I would wake up in shock on average three times a week to the sound of squealing brakes, followed by a crash.
The scene of crumpled up cars, congestion, screams and the commotion of people rushing back and forth attempting to pull those hurt from inside their cars, is a something that replays itself numerous times each day on Egypt’s streets, bridges and highways. Train accidents are also common, and we remain haunted by the image of bloodied school notebooks and backpacks owned by 51 school children who were killed in November 2012 in Qena, Upper Egypt.
In the past eight weeks, 48 people have been killed in road accidents in Egypt. Over the past week alone, a school bus flipped over on a highway on the outskirts of Cairo, killing a student and injuring four others; and another bus flipped over in the Red Sea governorate, killing four and injuring 47 others.
Accidents have now become one of the most common forms of death in Egypt.
It has become common now for the majority of Egyptians upon hearing of a death, to ask if the cause was an automobile or train accident. While the Arabic term for accident, hadetha (or hadsa in the Egyptian dialect) does not have the same connotation as its English equivalent, simply meaning “event,” most of the ways in which we talk about these tragic events ends up very much treating it like just another “event.” Through such connotations however, we conceal a lot.
How can we view accidents as not just another case of a reckless driver speeding or not having slept enough due to working a 20-hour shift, but rather as part of a deeper structure of rights and responsibilities? Whose responsibility is it when the next car crashes, let alone the thousand others who have already died this year as a result of these incidents? More importantly, how do such events determine who is worthy of life and who is not?
How do those on the margins, such as the majority of the population living in poverty, fall off the grid when it comes to responsibility and accountability by the state?
By thinking through these questions, I would like us to think about what types of violations such accidents bring to the fore.
“Human rights violations are not accidents; they are not random in distribution or effect. Rights violations are, rather, symptoms of deeper pathologies of power and are linked intimately to the social conditions that so often determine who will suffer abuse and who will be shielded from harm,” physician and anthropologist Paul Farmer states.
As a result, I aim to place stress on how we should think differently about accidents as human rights violations.
While individual responsibility becomes the way these accidents are labelled and conceived, lack of adequate infrastructure is often ignored.
One of the main driving forces pushing the village of Tahsin, Daqahliya, to initiate a movement declaring “independence” two years ago was the refusal of the state to build them a road, which left them completely isolated.
While people are dying on poorly constructed and maintained roads and railways, we see millions being channelled into gated communities on the outskirts of Cairo. With cosmopolitan names such as Palm Hills, Beverly Hills, Green Land, Hyde Park, Dream Land and Evergreen, these new enclaves are advertised as utopian opportunities for escape from the decay and ills of the city and its people.
Moreover, one of the best highways is the Mehwar leading to Sixth October City on the outskirts of Cairo, where most of these gated communities are situated, and which housed the majority of Hosni Mubarak’s business tycoons and government ministers.
To those of us who still remember, and to those who should be reminded, the chant of karama insaneya, “human dignity,” during the January 2011 uprising, still reverberates today.
This chant, which shook the streets and echoed within Tahrir Square and all across the country, is still being called for today and still needs to be recognised.
Our lives need to be valued. And alongside everything else, we should not have to fear commuting to school and work each morning.