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For many, doomed ferry symbolizes Egypt's corruption

Over 1,000 died in 2006 when an overcrowded, unseaworthy vessel capsized in the Red Sea. One man who lost his wife and four of his children has no hope of justice, but wants to keep the story alive.

March 01, 2009|Jeffrey Fleishman

CAIRO — He went looking for his daughter and found bodies stacked in garbage bags. A man told him she was in bag No. 123. She wasn't. She has never been found, and that is the hardest thing, to wonder where the sea took her.

In the predawn hours of Feb. 3, 2006, the ferry carrying Tareq Sharaf's family caught fire and capsized in high winds on the Red Sea between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. His wife and four of his children, along with 1,029 other passengers, drowned or died in the blaze. Sharaf wants someone held accountable, but after years of sitting in courtrooms and wandering government hallways, he is sure that will never happen.

"I don't have any hope for justice," he said. "But I have to keep telling this story, and I'm saving the documents and clippings so my one surviving son can tell it when I am dead."

For many Egyptians, the sinking of the overcrowded and unseaworthy ferry has come to symbolize the corruption and cronyism that mingles between the government of President Hosni Mubarak and well-connected businessmen.

The ferry owner, Mamdouh Ismail, was a Mubarak appointee to the upper house of parliament and was related to the owner of a company licensed by the state to inspect the safety of ships.

Ismail was charged with manslaughter and fled to London. His money followed. He was found not guilty in absentia, despite a 600-page parliamentary committee report that found the ferry had "serious defects" and that the company and captain were negligent. The verdict was appealed. The court's ruling on whether to overturn the decision or call a new trial is expected to be handed down March 11.

"The government and the rich are squeezing ordinary Egyptians. They're telling us we're useless," said Sharaf, a sales manager. "This case exposed high-level corruption. People's lives in Egypt are cheap. The evidence of that is that they put the dead in garbage bags and marked them as 'unknown bodies.' "

The ferry case is a grim glimpse into Egypt's starkly different worlds: one of migrants who work in Saudi Arabia and return home on rickety boats with money for their families, the other of elusive millionaires and billionaires with ties to the judicial system and ruling National Democratic Party, which sit atop a nation racked by inflation, labor unrest and poor healthcare and education.

"The state-businessmen relations in Egypt are an illegal and unconstitutional marriage," said Abdel Khaleq Farouk, an economist with Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "It is a relationship based on corruption and mutual pleasure between two parties who agreed to usurp and drain national resources in purposes that don't serve national security or national interests."

Most Egyptians scrabble through their days while fed a steady diet of the transgressions of the elite such as the 2008 arrest of real estate mogul Hisham Talaat Mustafa, a member of parliament charged with allegedly ordering the murder of his singer girlfriend. In 2007, another member of parliament, Hani Sorour, was charged with profiteering after an investigation found his medical supply company was peddling unsanitary blood bags to hospitals. He was acquitted.

The story of Egypt's worst maritime disaster has provoked the deepest anger and disillusionment. When Egyptians speak of it, they shake their heads and wince; it has become searing shorthand for national frustration, complete with details of Ismail's friendship with Mubarak advisor Zakaria Azmi and mock "wanted" posters of Ismail drifting across the Internet.

Authorities unfroze Ismail's assets after he agreed to pay about $57 million into a compensation fund for victims' families. The shipping magnate, who was charged for not immediately notifying authorities about the distressed boat and its 1,400 passengers, and four other company executives were acquitted of criminal charges. The only one convicted was the captain of a nearby ferry who was accused of failing to rescue survivors. He was sentenced to six months in prison; his case is on appeal.

Gameel Said, one of Ismail's lawyers, said his client moved to London for health reasons. He denied the ferry had safety problems, such as faulty lifeboats and fire extinguishers, and said Ismail had done nothing wrong: "These accusations were made in the court . . . but the court did not give them any importance because they did not conform to reality."

Even on a sunlit street, Sharaf walked with hunched somberness. He strolled through a courtyard the other day and stepped into a dim sitting room.

Documents and clippings about the case were stacked in folders, and he perched on the edge of a couch leaning forward, telling stories about his wife and children, introducing each of them, their interests, their mannerisms, before turning to that night the sea swallowed them along with the dowries of his daughters.

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