As survivors of a major fire in downtown Cairo last week take toll of the dramatic few days they lived with flames, smoke and ashes, they blame the government for a slow emergency response, and perhaps even more.
A huge fire broke out on Sunday, May 8, in one of Cairo’s busiest marketplaces: Souq al-Attaba. At least three people died, at least 91 were injured and five commercial buildings were completely destroyed, state media reported.
The fire started on Sunday night close to a building that houses a hotel and a number of shops and storehouses, then spread to another four buildings, all of which were gutted by the blaze. It lasted for at least two days, local residents and shop owners told Mada Masr.
Area residents blamed the civil defense forces and the fire department for the spread of the fire. They say firefighters didn’t arrive on the scene until an hour after the first building went up in flames, and no backup forces arrived until military firefighters showed up at 3 am.
“We tried to evacuate the hotel as soon as the fire started, until the civil firefighters came. They came an hour after the fire broke out, and had no backup,” says a source from the Andalus Hotel, which was located in one of the destroyed buildings. “As soon as they emptied their water tanks, they stood there as helpless as we were. We had to wait for the military firefighters to come, as they have more developed tools.”
An electrical short circuit may have ignited the blaze, Interior Ministry spokesperson Abu Bakr Abdul Karim said in a phone interview with the privately owned ONtv satellite channel. But residents and a number of shop owners affected by the fire believe it was a case of arson.
Sharaf Eddin, 50, is the doorman of one of the buildings that caught fire. He says the blaze began in a tent set up by a street vendor before spreading to the hotel building.
“In the blink of an eye, it spread to adjacent buildings, but the incomprehensible thing is that other buildings that were not close to it were set on fire, too. No matter how hard we tried to put the fires out, they raged more and more,” he recalls.
In the aftermath, a number of shop owners and wholesale traders are still evacuating the very few things left out of their scorched shops, including Salah Elwy, a wholesaler and owner of a number of clothing storehouses that were destroyed in the incident.
“This is surely an arson attack, and it is not the first time it happens here,” he claims. “Sunday is a day off at the market, and it is not as busy as any other day. [They] chose the timing very well. Just last week, also on a Sunday, the same thing happened in the same way, and it left Sednaoui [another shop] totally burned.”
The fire that broke out a week before at midnight in the Sednaoui department store, considered a heritage building by the National Organization for Urban Harmony, left the building completely charred. No injuries or deaths were reported after the incident, according to residents.
The vast number of street vendors and sellers putting their goods on display in the streets hindered the work of the firefighters, residents say, and made it harder to reach the burning buildings, as they blocked the adjacent roads. Most of the goods sold by the vendors are made from oil and petroleum byproducts, which ignited the fire, some residents claim.
The government is studying the possibility of evacuating downtown marketplaces — including Attaba and Mosky, two of Cairo’s largest markets, Cairo Deputy Governor Mohamed Ayman Abdel Tawab said in a phone interview with the privately owned TV channel Sada al-Balad a day after the fire broke out in Attaba. The plan is to evict street vendors from these areas and relocate them “in other, more open places where they can legally resume their commercial activities in a safer environment,” he said.
“This will be to ensure the traffic flow in downtown Cairo, and to ensure tighter safety measures in the case of fire, to avoid what happened in Attaba last Sunday,” Abdel Tawab added.
Elwy estimates he lost some LE2 million in the blaze, but he “demands nothing from officials but the restoration of the burned buildings,” so that they can resume their work.
The officials “have to have mercy on us,” Elwy argues. “We are thankful to them and we don’t want to get into trouble with anyone, but they have to understand that we have stayed here for more than 20 years. We demand that they find us an alternative place to work until the restoration of these buildings is complete. It cannot be solved any other way.”
The Andalus Hotel source puts the hotel’s losses at an estimated LE5 million, including the cost of destroyed furniture, electrical devices and other items.
The area’s municipal authority is collecting complaints from those affected by the fire, and has established a maximum compensation of LE5,000 for each shop owner, a source from the Cairo Social Solidarity Directorate told the privately owned Youm7 newspaper.
“We know for sure that even if the government promised to give us financial compensation, we are not going to get any, so it is better for us if they only restore the buildings,” responds a wholesale trader who asked to remain anonymous. “We need to resume our work as soon as possible, especially since the holy month of Ramadan is approaching. We sell the most during Ramadan.”
“I have lost merchandise that costs up to LE350,000, but my loss is incomparable to those who have lost millions,” he continues. “I cannot guarantee what could happen if they tore down the buildings that used to house our shops, claiming they are not strong enough, as we heard. But that is only going to cause more problems. We have lost enough already.”
When Mada Masr arrived at the Attaba market area cordoned off by security forces last week, Central Security Forces were telling the residents that a committee of engineers had visited the area and confirmed that the scorched buildings would be demolished.
Yahya Shawkat, an urban developer and co-founder of 10Tooba, which conducts applied research on the built environment, explains that the Cairo Governorate’s plan to evacuate the capital’s downtown areas from commercial activities started in 2008, with an aim to relocate most of its lower-class citizens and their associated commercial activities to other, less central areas. This led to the evacuation of a number of popular marketplaces and relocation of several factories over the past eight years.
“The governorate will surely make use of the fire and its consequences to conduct its plan and evacuate the area. However, it is not clear what it plans to do with it, or whether it will change its commercial nature or not. This will rather be determined by the area’s new commercial value,” says Shawkat.
“If the authorities decide to destroy the damaged buildings instead of restoring them, it might put them in direct conflict with the wholesale traders and shop owners affected by the fire,” Shawkat continues. “While street vendors are more flexible and can relocate without losing capital or ground, shop owners and wholesale traders who rent or own flats in the affected buildings will have to pay millions to buy new merchandise, rent flats in alternative areas with higher prices compared to what they used to pay in Attaba for more than 20 years, and relocate to start establishing their commercial names in a new place from scratch.”