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Nile river boat tours often sail Egyptians toward death

Boats offering rides on the Nile River are a popular but dangerous attraction due to many security breaches and lax enforcement.

CAIRO — Nile riverboat tours are one of the most popular leisure activities for Egyptians, especially the poor, given the rides cost at most 4 Egyptian pounds (about 51 US cents) per passenger.

These boats are popular among friends and families wanting to spend quality time in the river amid fun vibes and music. The Nile has always been the lifeblood of the Egyptians. However, this picturesque scene has been spoiled by a swamp of life-threatening infringements and violations. Authorities are now calling for tougher penalties.

Al-Monitor boarded one of these riverboats in the area of el-Tahrir to monitor violations of the Inland Navigation Law No. 10 of 1956.

The boat’s floor was made of wooden planks separated by gaps of different shapes and sizes, with holes that allowed water to seep in. The boat had 25 seats, yet the owner managed to squeeze on 52 passengers. The General Authority for River Transportation requires boats to carry fire extinguishers and enough life jackets or throw rings for each passenger, yet none were visible.

The authority's engineers are supposed to inspect each boat's engine and deck to make sure it can carry the planned number of passengers. The authority determines the number of sailors and crew members and their roles.

On the prow stood a dancing girl, amid an atmosphere of music and fun to attract young men to enjoy the tour. The girl danced throughout the Nile tour, which lasted about 15 minutes. The girl told Al-Monitor, “I ran away from my home in one of Cairo’s slums as a result of my family’s oppression. I was homeless and I came to the Tahrir boat when I heard that it was [hiring]."

Ahmed Aliyouwa, the boat’s owner, told Al-Monitor, “Boat owners here avoid acquiring a license since they dread paying penalties for their violations. They would say that if they renewed their license every two years, engineers would be assigned to inspect their boats, and there is not a single boat on the bay that does not require maintenance or renewal.”

He said each boat does nearly 20 daily tours, taking in about $25 per run, depending on the number of passengers. "It is the dancing girls that increase the number of passengers,” he added.

Hamdi Barghout, a lecturer at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology & Maritime Transport and a river transportation expert, told Al-Monitor there are two main types of violations. The first category includes simple but frequent infractions such as playing music too loudly. The second category includes safety violations, which can result in a boat losing its sailing privileges.

Boat owners are supposed to renew their license every two years, but after the revolution, some of these boats have been operating without a license," Barghout said. "During inspection campaigns, if it appears that any of these boats employ workers not approved by the authority, or that these boats are not equipped with life rings or safety requirements, [the boat must stop operating] and its owner shall be referred to the public prosecutor’s office for violating safety and licensing conditions.”

Barghout believes the authority’s conditions are irrelevant because of the provisions of Inland Navigation Law No. 10 of 1956. Under that law, violators are not imprisoned and the maximum fine is only 100 pounds ($12.77). Moreover, the public prosecutor releases violators on the spot, since the offense is considered a misdemeanor. Barghout described the law as “shameful.”

In July, authorities said more than 30 people died on one of the boats in el-Warraq in the Giza governorate as result of gross negligence and safety violations. That tragedy is but one in a long history of riverboat incidents.

In July 2010, a small boat carrying at least 20 girls in a tour organized by a church in Tora Kozzika in Maadi district capsized moments after launching. It appeared the boat’s capacity limit was six passengers. The young captain survived after he swam to shore leaving the girls, between 8 and 18 years of age, to face their fate. According to reports, four of the girls died.

In July 2014, the Corniche el Nile witnessed a terrible accident. A riverboat carrying 25 passengers sank in front of the Maspero TV building after colliding with the 6th of October Bridge. Owners of other boats intervened and managed to rescue 19 passengers, but six passengers drowned.

In an attempt to address those violations, the General Authority for River Transportation blamed the Inland Navigation Law. The river transportation research unit released a report Sept. 1 demanding the amendment of the almost 60-year-old inland navigation law and its insufficient penalties.

Maj. Gen. Reza Ismail, head of the river transport authority, stated there are more than 9,000 vessels and ferries and 500 boats and yachts — most of which are unlicensed — used for tours, parties and daily transportation between the shores of the Nile, despite their failure to meet the safety and rescue equipment conditions.

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