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Cablegate: Inferno at Egypt's Shura Council

VZCZCXRO5613
RR RUEHROV
DE RUEHEG #1851 2341136
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 211136Z AUG 08
FM AMEMBASSY CAIRO
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 0291
INFO RUEHXK/ARAB ISRAELI COLLECTIVE

UNCLAS CAIRO 001851

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

NSC FOR PASCUAL

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PREL PGOV KDEM EG
SUBJECT: INFERNO AT EGYPT'S SHURA COUNCIL

1. (SBU) Summary: In a dramatic fire the evening of August
19, the 142-year old building housing the main hall, offices,
and committee rooms of the Shura Council, Egypt's upper
parliamentary house, was heavily damaged. The GOE has
pledged to rapidly rebuild, and parliament, which is
currently on recess, is expected to reconvene on-time in
mid-November. A pervasive sense of schadenfreude has gripped
the Egyptian public in response to the blaze, with no small
number of Egyptians feeling that parliamentary fat cats, who
recently passed a highly unpopular traffic law, have gotten
what they deserved. End summary.

2. (U) Black smoke billowed over downtown Cairo for nine
hours on August 19 as firemen, and then military helicopters
called in to douse the flames with water from above, battled
the blaze. Initial government statements ruled out any foul
play in the incident, and on August 20 Interior Minister
Habib al Adly told reporters that no "sabotage, subversive or
terrorist acts" started the fire. According to press
reports, faulty wiring or some similar electrical problem is
the most likely cause. The Shura Council building, built by
Khedive Ismail in the mid-19th century, was largely made of
wood, so the fire spread quickly once it started. The
building reportedly had no sprinkler system. One fireman died
and 13 were injured while fighting the fire. The blaze
reportedly heavily damaged the Shura Council's main hall,
several parliamentary committee meeting rooms, as well as the
official records of the parliament.

3. (U) Egypt's parliament is currently on recess, and not due
to start its new session until mid-November. Speaker of the
Shura Council Safwat el Sherif and People's Assembly Speaker
Fathi Surour have both pledged that the new session will
begin on time, and that reconstruction will begin
immediately. PM Ahmed Nazif toured the damaged building on
August 20, and said that a technical committee is being
formed to investigate the cause of the fire, assess the
extent of the damage, and provide recommendations for
immediate rebuilding at government expense.

4. (SBU) Comment: A pervasive sense of schadenfreude has
gripped the Egyptian public in response to the blaze. Even as
the fire burned, we heard comments like, "it's too bad that
the Shura wasn't in session, and all of those corrupt
politicians went down with the building!" and "So the Shura
burnt down - will anyone notice? It's not like that council
does anything anyway!" According to contacts who were in the
street watching the fire, the average reaction of passerbys
was not shock and grief that such a historical building was
destroyed, but rather a "serves them right" smirk. Some
activist contacts told us they viewed the destruction of the
Shura Council as a metaphor for the Egyptian state - "the
institutions of the state itself are weak and easily
destroyed, while it is the regime that is strong." Hamdeen
Sabahi, an MP from a Nasserite party, told reporters that,
"There is anger towards the regime and the feeling that
officials deserve what happened." The Muslim Brotherhood
parliamentary bloc, quick to capitalize on any opportunity to
criticize the government, released a statement noting
"disappointment at the careless handling of the crisis by
Egyptian authorities, despite the importance of the building
... (This highlights) the shameful carelessness of Egyptian
authorities and their weak crisis management abilities."
Egypt's emergency response services looked weak and
ineffective in their response to the fire, with the
widespread perception being that they did not know how to
properly respond, and that the military had to bail them out.
SCOBEY

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