Aftermath of downtown Cairo fire: Anger, conspiracy theory and uncertainty

Zeinab El-Gundy , Wednesday 11 May 2016

Ahram Online speaks to the victims of the massive blaze in El-Rewaiei market, where the fire destroyed over 100 shops and workshops

Firefighters putting off fires in Al-Rewaiei
Firefighters putting of a fire at Al-Rewaiei street on Tuesday (Photo:Mai Shaheen)

"This is a scene not from Iraq or Syria, but from Egypt," is a comment frequently seen accompanying images on social media of the aftermath of a fire that recently engulfed a market in downtown Cairo’s Attaba.

The massive blaze had spread throughout the constantly buzzing El-Rewaiei market after a series of smaller fires broke out on Sunday night, with flames burning till the early morning hours on Tuesday.

More than 60 fire engines and ambulances, with the help of hundreds of local residents and workers, fought the unrelenting blaze in the narrow streets of the neighbourhood for more than 24 hours.

It took that long to bring the fire under control because the densely-packed nature of the area has made it a perfect candidate for disaster.

After the smoke had cleared, three people had been killed and 91 injured, according to the Cairo Ambulance Authority.

The historic market is home to hundreds of small industrial workshops, artisans, garment depots, home, curtain and chandelier accessory stores, as well as street vendors selling affordable clothes and trinkets.

This vibrant market is frequented daily by thousands of shoppers seeking deals in retail goods and wholesale products.

Fires in Al-Rewaiei on Monday
The fires continued on Monday in the buildings in Al-Rewaiei while firefighters attempted it to put it off (Photo: AFP)

When Ahram Online arrived at the scene early Tuesday afternoon, the firemen were still fighting the blaze at a hotel believed to be the flashpoint of the fire.

According to eyewitnesses, the fire started at 11:30pm in the Andalus Hotel, which occupies the two top floors of a six-story building. 

Al-Andalus hotel
Al-Andalus Hotel after the fire on Tuesday (Photo:Mai Shaheen)

Ministry of Interior spokesperson Abu Bakr Abdel-Karim said in media statements that the fire started because of an electrical short circuit, according to preliminary investigations. The flames spread to other buildings when the fire engulfed wood structures and flammable materials in workshops. 

At least six buildings were destroyed along with dozens of street vendor stalls. 

Although the cause of the fire has not been officially determined, authorities blame the shop owners and street vendors for the spread of the flames as their shops lacked any kind of industrial safety measures. 

One firefighter who battled the flames told Ahram Online on Tuesday that the shops were full of flammable materials, from leather to chemicals, making it difficult to extinguish the flames. 

Firefighters putting off fires in Al-Rewaiei
Firefighters putting off fires in Al-Rewaiei street on Tuesday (Photo:Mai Shaheen)

Cairo governorate announced on Tuesday that the fire resulted in over 200 tonnes of debris. 

The Cairo Chamber of Commerce stated on Tuesday that according to preliminary estimates, the fire caused property damage costing up to EGP 400 million and the destruction of 236 shops and workshops. 

Conspiracy theories

Some of the vendors in the market insist that the fire involved foul play.

"The press should know that all those fires did not start as [officials] are claiming in the media,” a shop owner in her 40s told Ahram Online. “Someone is behind the fires that destroyed our shops." 

The lady owned a leather workshop known for selling cheap shoes and leather products as well as paint and door accessories. Her shop was consumed in the flames. 

Amr, another shopkeeper in his 40s, told Ahram Online that "this is not the first fire to break out on the street. Last Sunday, a fire broke out at the historical Sednaoui Department store at the end of the street.”

Torched shops
Torched shops at Al-Rewaiei street in Cairo's Downtown Attaba area (Photo:Mai Shaheen)

Sunday is usually a day off for most shops and workshops in downtown Cairo. 

“Once again we find that another fire broke out this Sunday at the Andalus Hotel building where over 100 shops were located,” Amr said.

Many of Amr’s fellow vendors also believe that the fires were not coincidental, pointing to the Sednaoui fire as proof. 

Social media users have started connecting the fires to previous statements made by officials that street vendors would be moved outside the city from areas including downtown Cairo.

Another fire broke out Tuesday night in the historical Ghouriya neighbourhood where many textile shops are located. Nine shops were destroyed in the fire.

The shopkeepers and vendors Ahram Online spoke to say that state officials have not offered compensation for their losses. Most of the shops and workshops in the area do not have insurance as many are operating without permits.

The Ministry of National Solidarity has, however, announced that it would compensate the victims of the blaze EGP 10,000 for the families of those killed and EGP 2,000 for the injured.

Despite Prime Minister Sherif Ismail’s visit to the area on Monday, many shopkeepers insist that officials, including their representatives in parliament, do not care about them.

"Where is our MP Nabil Boules?" one angry shopkeeper told Ahram Online. 

However, several MPs have raised in parliament the issue of the Attaba fire, calling for victims to be compensated. Other MPs demanded that Cairo governorate redraw the area. 

Many of the street vendors and shop owners still worry over their uncertain future, especially with the frequent statements by governorate officials that they would be moved from the area. 

Some of the vendors, however, have angrily insisted that they would not leave.

"This is where we have lived and worked all our lives, we will not leave," they said as their peers removed debris from in front if their torched shops.

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