The Beni Suef fire scandal

For the past three weeks, the story that has dominated the Egyptian media is the scandal that erupted in the wake of a fire in the small town of Beni Suef, 100km of Cairo, which killed 46 people included prominent critics and writers. Under tremendous public pressure, Minister of Culture Farouq Hosni tendered his resignation to President Hosni Mubarak, who a few days later refused it and urged Hosni to remain in his position.

The affair has nonetheless mobilized left-wing intellectuals and activists who blame Hosni for the derelict state of the theater, which had only one fire extinguisher and a blocked fire exit.

“The incident of the fire in Beni Suef is just the latest chapter in ongoing saga of corruption in Egypt, which has infected the entire pyramid of power of the state,” wrote Salama Ahmed Salama in Al Ahram. “If we take into account the collapse of buildings, fires on trains, etc. the resignation of Mr. Hosni merely hints at the iceberg of corruption.”

In the opposition daily Al Wafd, Mohammed Salmawi—who usually writes in Al Ahram and is known for being friendly towards Hosni—took the position that the affair had taken inflated importance in the national media “because Egyptians do not have a culture of resignation.”

The state media carried reports of a petition signed by 400 “intellectuals” asking President Mubarak not to dismiss Hosni. But Al Masri Al Youm, continuing its campaign on the affair, has publicized another petition signed by prominent artists and intellectuals—and led by filmmaker Youssef Chahine, one of the most famous Egyptians internationally—asking Mubarak to dismiss him after all. Their columnist Magdi Mehanna chimed in, in his backpage column fil mamnou’ (On the forbidden), saying that the petition defending Hosni was “scandalous” and “pure hypocrisy on the part of these ‘intellectuals,’ who are sabotaging Egyptian political life by their attitude.”

Perhaps saddest of all for Hosni’s detractors was to read, prominently displayed on Al Ahram’s back page a few days ago, a short statement by Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, the towering figure of Egyptian literature, which stated: “We must not blame a minister who has given so much to culture for this catastrophe,” and adding that Hosni’s offer to resign was a “courageous move” and a “return to decent political traditions.”

It may have been all the sadder as it is an open secret that the man who collects and edits (and perhaps invents) the words of the blind, practically senile, 94-year-old Mahfouz is none other than… Mohammed Salmawi.

In the meantime, conspiracy theories and political theatrics are proliferating.

Sawt Al Umma, the weekly political tabloid that has taken a critical turn after Al Destour editor Ibrahim Eissa began to also edit it, presented a new theory in its editorial: that Hosni’s resignation was but a replay of the surprise resignation of Al Akhbar Al Youm editor Ibrahim Saeda, which foreshadowed by a few weeks the fall of the main public sector press barons.

Even in Al Ahram, related stories began to emerge. For instance, a small fire in the storehouse of Cairo’s Islamic Museum received front-page treatment, with the newspaper stressing that Hosni rushed to the scene as soon as he knew. The disappearance of three priceless artifacts from the Egyptian Museum also unusually received front-page treatment, with other papers claiming that these thefts were actually old but that Hosni had previously refused to investigate them for unexplained reasons.

But some of the theories being floated around about this have to do with internal regime fights. While Hosni has kept his job for now, he eventually dismissed Mustafa Elwi, the director of the Cultural Palaces section of the ministry of culture. Elwi, whose department was in theory responsible for the Beni Suef Theater, was the target of as many accusations as his boss, and evidently was chosen as the fall guy for the affair. The independent and opposition press, as it wildly speculated about an upcoming cabinet shuffle (now apparently delayed until at least December, some say), presented a conspiracy theory about the fallout of the fire really being a fight between old and new guards in the regime.

Al Arabi, for instance, wrote that “the resignation of the minister was a ploy designed to get rid of Mustafa Elwi and detract from the disappearance of artifacts from the Egyptian Museum, which the minister has refused to investigate.” For Al Masri Al Youm's Magdi Mehanna, writing before Elwi’s dismissal, Elwi “enjoyed a protection against any accusation on his responsibily for the Beni Suef catastrophe because he is a member of the Policies Committee of the National Democratic Party. This committee must not become the ‘Defense League for the Corrupt.’… Could it be that a committee from the ruling party would sacrifice a minister to protect one of its own?” Mehanna added that it was not enough for Hosni and Elwi to resign, but that the ministers of health and interior should resign, as well as the governor of Beni Suef.

And finally: wondering why Mubarak had refused Hosni’s resignation, the highly critical independent weekly Al Destour wondered if the resignation had been refused because Mubarak did not want to set an example that could lead others to ask for his own resignation.

Point of the story: in a society whose politics is characterised by opacity and lack of clear information, even a relatively free press is not much use, as it will tend to get taught in details and process rather than the fundamental problems behind a scandal like the fire. For while tons of ink has been spilt discussing the political ramifications of the fire, I have not yet heard of new measures being set up to ensure fire safety in theaters.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.