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Sisi taps military chum to reform Egypt's railways

Egypt's fourth transportation minister in eight years vows to transform the country's dangerously dilapidated rail system, but some Egyptians wonder why a man with such a strong military background was selected for the job.

CAIRO — President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has chosen the head of Egypt's Armed Forces Engineering Authority, Lt. Gen. Kamel al-Wazir, to replace Hisham Arafat as transportation minister. Hisham resigned just hours after a Feb. 27 train crash in Cairo killed 22 people and left dozens wounded.

The decision reflects Sisi’s confidence in the military establishment, with which he has been engaging in all of his administration's mega development projects.

But the president’s decision is raising controversy. Some citizens welcomed Wazir’s appointment, believing he can restore order to the country’s vital transportation sector, mainly the railway network. Others say his appointment is meant to calm the public, and some have called for demonstrations over the dangerous state of the sector. The police arrested dozens of protesters following the train crash, according to human rights activists.

Egypt has one of the oldest railway networks in the world, stretching more than 9,570 kilometers (5,947 miles). The railway is rundown, with time-worn trains and rails that are very susceptible to human error and accidents.

Sisi was speaking at an educational seminar for the armed forces on March 10, Martyr’s Day, when he surprised the audience by nominating Wazir as minister of transportation and communications. The parliament approved his nomination later that day.

Said Sadek, a political science professor at the American University of Cairo, told Al-Monitor Wazir was nominated based on purely political grounds to counter rising anger over the government’s neglect of the train network.

Following the train crash, some 30 young men and women were arrested in central Cairo after calling for protests against Sisi’s government, which has ruled since 2014 following the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohammed Morsi.

Sadek said the train crash has serious political repercussions for the regime. The outcry comes while the Egyptian Parliament, the majority of which backs the current regime, is discussing proposed constitutional amendments that would allow Sisi to rule Egypt until 2034 and another to strengthen the military's powers. Such amendments require popular support, but the Egyptian public has been growing ever angrier at the regime over the economic situation that has been exacerbated by mega projects they see as unnecessary.

Public anger reached new highs after the train crash, Sadek said, adding that to contain it, the regime pressured Arafat into resigning and appointed Wazir. Sisi's appointment of someone close to him is a signal that Sisi is serious about developing the railway, Sadek said.

The new minister’s task will be successful only if Sisi continues to support him. “Only time will prove this or not,” he added.

Wazir first entered the public eye when he became head of the Armed Forces Engineering Authority in 2015, overseeing the new Suez Canal project in addition to the new administrative capital east of Cairo.

Wazir vowed at the March 10 seminar that he would work to develop the different bodies of the Transportation Ministry, not only the Egyptian Railway Authority, saying he expects the ministry to become “one of the most successful and best ministries in the state.”

Maysa Fahmi, a journalist specializing in transportation issues, told Al-Monitor the railway has been a major headache for successive governments over the past decade, plagued by crashes and hundreds of deaths. Four ministers have resigned in less than eight years.

“The railway network faces two problems. First is the worn down trains that have gone without maintenance for many years as a result of government neglect. Second is the lack of discipline in the railway authority staff, which was obvious in the recent accident,” she said, referring to drug addiction accusations leveled against the driver. The Associated Press reported the conductor was fighting with another staff member when the crash occurred. 

According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, there were 1,082 train accidents in the first half of 2018, compared with 793 during the same period in 2017. There were 1,657 total train accidents in 2017.

Fahmi explained that last year, the parliament amended the law establishing the National Railways Authority of Egypt to involve the private sector in developing the railways after the government failed to allocate the necessary budget.

In a March 11 report, a nongovernmental organization called the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights indicated that government spending on the railway dwindled by 39% from 1990 to 2016 — from 1.3% of GDP in 1990-1991 to less than 0.31% of GDP in 2015-2016.

On his first day of work, March 11, Wazir told reporters at the ministry's headquarters, “My goal is to achieve development in the transportation sector via the employees. Resorting to the military is an option.”

Said Taimeh, a member of the parliamentary transportation committee, is skeptical about the new minister’s ability to reform the railway sector, which is suffering major problems and needs huge amounts of funding. However, he noted, “he has certainly proven himself at the head of the army’s engineering body. We hope that he will succeed in facing the big difficulties in his mission.”

Hassan Nafea, a political science professor at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor, “Appointing Wazir underlines the military’s dominance over the state and indicates that Sisi views this institution as the only source from which trustworthy officials can be selected. And this is where the problem resides.”

He added that Sisi neglected the railway sector just as he did the hundreds of factories that have been out of service in the aftermath of the January 2011 revolution. Instead, he embarked on building a new administrative capital, to which huge resources have been allocated, Nafea said.

“Priorities are not properly set. At the end of the day, Sisi will be either required to borrow more funds from foreign parties or to transfer to the Egyptian National Railways funds allocated to other sectors.”

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