Many Egyptians unmoved by heroic 'train lady' story

A woman who offered to pay a conscript's train fare has been celebrated as a national hero in Egypt, but skeptics suggest the incident was staged to deflect attention from bigger challenges faced by the country.

al-monitor Passengers, some wearing face masks, arrive at Cairo's Ramses railway station in the Egyptian capital on March 20, 2020. Photo by KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images.

Topics covered

videos, discrimination, egyptian military, abdel fattah al-sisi, transportation, trains

Sep 21, 2020

Egypt's National Railway Authority announced Sept. 14 it would eliminate rail fares for military and police personnel effective mid-September. The move has raised questions about preferential treatment for the country's security forces. All railway stations have been notified that uniformed security personnel and those who present their National ID cards to the fare inspector are exempt from paying for train rides.

The decision came on the heels of a viral video showing a uniformed army conscript being reprimanded by a train conductor after he refuses to pay. As the argument heats up, a female passenger offers to pay for the conscript's far of less than $2. "I have sons your age at home," she tells him.

The woman, referred to as "the train lady" on social media, was later identified as Saffia Abu El-Azm, a schoolteacher from the Nile Delta governorate of Menoufia. She became an instant celebrity after Egypt's largely pro-government media branded her a national hero on talk shows and in news articles.

Both she and the conscript were honored by Minister of Defense and Military Production Mohamed Zaki at a Sept. 13 ceremony to pay tribute to retired army officers. Handing Abu El-Azm the Shield of the Armed Forces, Zaki said, "Her act reflects the virtues of the authentic Egyptian woman. No reward can do her justice, for the Egyptian mother is the symbol of kindness and compassion." He also praised the conscript for his "discipline" and "self-restraint. "

Egypt's National Council for Women also paid tribute to Abu El-Azm, awarding her the Council's Shield of Appreciation and appointing her a council member in Gharbia, a governorate north of Cairo. The Ministry of Transport presented her with a travel card to be renewed annually throughout her lifetime in recognition of her "noble deed."

Both the train inspector and the conductor were punished by the Ministry of Transport with deductions from their wages for both "inappropriate behavior" and failure to abide by the Railway Authority's requirement of surgical masks on board. Both were reportedly transferred from passenger to freight service despite the conductor's public apology for his "mistake" in having publicly humiliated the conscript by asking him to remove the insignia from his uniform. 

The state's reaction and the media hype have raised eyebrows on social media, where some observers like Hossam El Sokkari, the former head of the BBC's Arabic Network, described the extreme response to the incident as "irrational and populist."

"The decision to give the men in uniform preferential treatment is unprecedented," he told Al-Monitor. "It can only fuel tensions and create daily conflicts with civilian passengers who have already booked their seats," he said.

Some skeptics have suggested that the incident was a "charade," while others said it was meant to deflect attention from daily frustrations and recent online calls for protests against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Suspicious that the entire episode was staged, some social media users alleged that the man who captured the dispute between the train conductor and the conscript on camera, Shady Mahmoud Bilal, self-identifies on Facebook as a member of the pro-Sisi Future of The Nation Party.

In a telephone interview broadcast live on the privately owned Sada El Ballad channel, Bilal, who was introduced by the interviewer as a geologist, denied that the incident had been pre-planned.

"What happened was inappropriate, as the conscript represents the armed forces. By insulting him, the train conductor insulted the military, the political leadership and the whole country," he said.

Many social media users expressed gratitude to the "train lady," hailing her as a "great Egyptian mother" and a "real Egyptian." But the train incident also evoked memories of a similar episode last year that did not end well. In late October 2019, two street vendors who had boarded a Luxor-bound train from Alexandria without tickets jumped off the moving train after the conductor threatened to turn them in. One of them died while the other reportedly lost a leg.

"You either pay, get off the train immediately or face arrest," the conductor had told the pair after they had admitted they had no money to pay the fine of 70 Egyptian pounds (approximately $5) for traveling without tickets. The conductor rejected offers from other passengers to pay their fare. 

In videos that went viral, passengers alleged that the conductor had forced the men off the train while it was still moving. The videos provoked an outcry on social media with some activists demanding that Minister of Transport Kamel El Wazir resign his post.

El Wazir, a former head of the Armed Forces Engineering Authority, had been nominated for the cabinet post by Sisi seven months earlier, following the resignation of previous Transport Minister Hisham Arafat over a deadly train crash. Seeking to deflect responsibility for the young man's death, El Wazir said the dead man was "not a child" and should have known better than to board the train without a ticket. While the ministry did pay compensation to the two men's families, El Wazir's seeming apathy toward the death caused an uproar.

Drawing a comparison between the state's response to the two incidents, one Twitter user posted two images side by side: one of the deceased street vendor, who has since come to be known on social media as the "ticket martyr," and of the conscript helped by the "train lady." 

"This is Egypt's story in pictures," she tweeted. "Neither of the men had tickets; the civilian was killed and the conscript was honored."

The government raised metro fares in mid-August, the second such hike since July 2019. The move further squeezed low-income Egyptians who rely on the metro as their main mode of transportation and were already struggling with the effects of biting austerity measures introduced in 2016. Up until mid-September 2018, various segments of the population including the police, the military, the judiciary and the press had been offered discounted fares for metro rides but the government cancelled the program.

Commenting on the recent train incident, Timothy Kaldas, an analyst and non-resident fellow at The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told Al-Monitor, "It is not unheard of for governments to give discounts to state employees on public transportation. The fact, however, that a conscript could not afford the train fare and required the assistance of the 'train lady' reflects the rapidly rising cost of public transportation in Egypt as well as the extremely low pay given to conscripts." 

The decision to waive train fares for the army and police has riled average Egyptians impacted by the slashing of fuel subsidies and the rising prices of commodities.

The army and police have seen their salaries and pensions increased multiple times since Sisi took office and men in uniform have taken key positions in state institutions.

A raft of constitutional amendments approved in a 2019 referendum has allowed the military to extend its role beyond national defense to "protecting the constitution" and even "protecting democracy."

The militarization of the economy worries some analysts who blame it for contraction in private sector activity. Exemption from taxes and customs duties and access to cheap labor (by poorly paid conscripts) are just some of the benefits that have given military companies a competitive advantage over the private sector, particularly in infrastructure and housing projects managed by the military and acquired through no-bid contracts. From factories producing food supplies, medical products and, more recently, solar panels, the military has both expanded and diversified its role in the economy in a trend that some analysts warn is unsustainable.

"By involving the army in all sectors and threatening to deploy troops to villages to demolish people's homes, Sisi is pitting the army against the Egyptian people. This is dangerous and risks undermining his and the military's popularity," an Uber driver asking to be identified only by his first name, Islam, told Al-Monitor.

"Exempting security personnel from train fares would have been OK if it didn't affect us, but it will. It is us ordinary citizens who will foot the bill through additional taxes, perhaps. That can only widen the rift between the people and the men in uniform running the country," he lamented.

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