BADRASHEEN, Egypt — Packed in a rickety train speeding through the night, the poorly fed, pale-looking Egyptian conscripts were coming from some of Egypt’s most dirt-poor villages to serve in one of the most miserable, lowly jobs of the security forces — as grunts in an anti-riot force usually deployed against protesters.
At a station just outside of Cairo before dawn Tuesday, the train’s last car jumped the track, slammed into a parked train, and then was dragged for several kilometres. The car was torn to pieces, young recruits were sent flying along the tracks, and others were mangled.
In the end, 19 recruits mostly in their early 20s were killed and more than 100 were injured, some with arms or legs torn off.
The accident was the latest example of Egypt’s decrepit infrastructure turning lethal for the country’s poorest — and a reminder that the revolution two years ago has brought no relief in the lives of a population where poverty is worsening. The crash brought a new wave of anger at Islamist President Mohammed Morsi for failing to carry out reforms or overhaul the country’s crumbling public services.
Morsi’s supporters say such criticism is unfair, that he can’t immediately fix the result of years of neglect and poor administration from ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak’s 29-year rule. The Mubarak era saw a string of train fires, crashes and a ferry sinking, some killing hundreds at a time.
Still, the anger was brewing Tuesday. After daybreak, a military helicopter hovering over the wreckage of the train enraged bystanders gathered at the site near Badrasheen station, 12 miles (20 kilometres) south of Cairo.
“Where were you when the accident happened?” men shouted, waving at the helicopter. Nearby, blood-stained train seats were scattered along the track, along with shoes and clothes, along with the shredded shell of the train car.
Hundreds of protesters massed in Cairo’s main train station, chanting, “The people want to topple the regime,” the main slogan of the uprising that ousted Mubarak in February 2011. They were joined by passengers whose trips were cancelled because most trains in the country were halted after the accident. Other protests with anti-Morsi slogans took place at the train stations in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria and the industrial Nile Delta city of Mahallah el-Kubra.
The crash came just ahead of the two-year anniversary of the Jan. 25 start of the anti-Mubarak uprising. The anniversary is expected to bring rallies by opponents of Morsi.
Since he came to power in June as Egypt’s first elected president, Morsi has faced mounting economic, social and security woes.
During his presidential campaign, Morsi promised a 100-day plan to resolve Egypt’s most pressing issues like providing bread, cleaning up garbage and instilling security, but failed to deliver on most.
Only two months ago, 50 children died when a train rammed into their school bus in southern Egypt. Like Tuesday, that tragedy sparked a storm of criticism of Morsi’s administration.
Accompanied by TV cameras, Morsi visited a number of survivors from Tuesday’s crash and pledged to hold officials accountable.
“My heart is bleeding for Egypt’s martyrs and the injured and God willing, this accident will be the last to sadden Egypt and Egyptians,” Morsi said at a military hospital in suburban Cairo.
The head of the Brotherhood’s political party, Saad el-Katatni, said the accident was “evidence of the near complete collapse of the infrastructure after years of corruption under the rule of the ousted president.”
The entire train journey illustrated the harshness and neglect Egypt’s poor face.
The draftees were packed into a decrepit, rusting train, heading to a join a force where abuse and mistreatment of recruits is notorious. After the accident, survivors were taken to a broken-down hospital with open sewers and decaying wards where the injured were loaded several to a bed.
The train was carrying 1,300 young recruits of the Central Security Forces, a 300,000-member body which draws from the ranks of military draftees for manpower to back up regular police forces in keeping internal law and order.
All young Egyptian men are required to perform military service, but some of the poorest and least educated are diverted into the CSF. There, they are often deployed in crackdowns on protesters and strikers — black-garbed troops ordered to line up in human walls, armed with sticks to keep back demonstrators.
The miserable conditions in the force are so well known among Egyptians that at times even protesters showed sympathy for the conscripts during the anti-Mubarak uprising.
Those on Tuesday’s train ride were heading from impoverished villages in the south to a training facility still named “Mubarak Camp” on the outskirts of the capital.
Survivors described an awful 6-hour trip — even before the crash. They were crammed into the cars, sitting on the ground, squeezing multiple numbers into seats designed for two, even sitting on the baggage racks overhead. The rusting, aging cars had no electricity and were in complete darkness. Officers shouted insults and beat recruits, they said.
During the ride, “I cried hard, I thought I was going to die,” said el-Imam el-Araby, a 20-year-old conscript from the southern province of Sohag as he lied on a metal bed in a foul-smelling ward of Hawamdiya hospital, close to the crash site, where 99 of the injured were taken.
Officials were still investigating the cause of the crash. Survivors said the train made unusual noises during the trip and the driver stopped several times to check the cars but was ordered to continue. As it neared Badrasheen, the rear car began to shake violently.
“Our car was jumping up and down and then suddenly there was something like a bomb,” said Hamad Mahfouz, a 20-year-old from the southern province of Assiut who was injured in his legs. “In one minute, we fell down and found ourselves on the track itself. It was like an earthquake.”
His twin brother was killed.
“When I gained my consciousness, I started calling my brother’s name,” he sobbed. “This is negligence. They knew that the train was broken. Why didn’t they get us buses instead of killing us? They treat us like animals.”
Many of the wounded and dead were taken to the hospital in pickup trucks by local residents. “It took hours for the hospital to open its morgue. The cold bodies were filling the floor,” said Ahmed Abdel-Basit, who helped in the rescue.
Akmal Abdel-Fatah, a merchant who also helped the injured, said, “We thought the poor will harvest the fruits of the revolution but it turned against them. The poor are forgotten while the officials only serve their own interest.”
CSF conscripts have rebelled against inhumane conditions several times in the past decades. Most notably, in 1986 they rioted for four days over rumours their term would be extended, setting hotels and nightclubs near the Pyramids on fire.
Train wrecks and other transportation disasters are common in Egypt because of outdated infrastructure, faulty maintenance and corruption. The railway’s worst disaster was in 2002, when a train heading to southern Egypt caught fire, killing 363 people.
On Tuesday, Egypt’s main opposition group, the National Salvation Front, quickly turned blame on Morsi, listing six train accidents since he came to power.
“It is not possible anymore to suffice with promises,” it said in a statement. Morsi and his government “must rearrange its priorities” and focus on protecting Egyptians’ lives and “improving their standards of living.”