Fault Line

By Hubbell, Stephen | The Nation, November 2, 1992 | Go to article overview

Fault Line


Hubbell, Stephen, The Nation


Nature can be not only cruel but sadistic. The first reports from Cairo Monday afternoon, October 12, were that a mild earthquake had struck the Egyptian capital. A quick look around the city's downtown section--including the famous Golden Mile of swank hotels and luxury apartments--confirmed the early diagnosis. The Pyramids and Sphinx survived the tremor even though its epicenter had been just a few miles south and west of the Pyramid plateau. One downtown hotel that caters to package tours from Western Europe had shed its top-floor disco, but that seemed poetic rather than tragic.

But on closer inspection another story emerged. In the narrow, winding streets of the old city and in the working-class suburbs where most Cairenes reside, the toll in lost life and property began to climb as soon as the shaking stopped. At three elementary and high schools in the industrial northern Cairo neighborhood of Shubra al-Khaimah, more than 100 children died in a panicked stampede as they rushed to leave their trembling school buildings. Hours later, outside a nearby hospital, the parents of missing children staged an anguished vigil, pleading with hospital personnel for news and dodging the tailing truncheons of security police who shooed them away from the front gates. Every few minutes, hospital orderlies appeared, bearing on their shoulders a cloth sack containing the body of another young victim. Thus was the bad news delivered to the families of the dead.

The earthquake has starkly revealed the economic fault lines that run through Egyptian society. Poor Egyptians are far more likely than others to live in hastily constructed, and illegal, "informal" housing, just the kind of structure that can't stand up to a quake. Many of these buildings were thrown up in the years following Sadat's economic opening to the West in 1974, which set in motion a frenzy of real estate speculation and profiteering; it took only seconds Monday to raze these tenements. …

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