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Egyptians turn to Facebook to highlight decrepit public facilities

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CAIRO >> When the prime minister of Egypt visited two Cairo hospitals last month, he said he was shocked by the disorder and decay he encountered. No one else was.

Egyptian doctors posted hundreds of pictures on a Facebook page showing poor conditions at medical facilities around the country: bandaged patients sleeping in halls, animals traipsing through wards, splotches of blood left to coagulate on floors.

Their effort inspired a series of similar pages illustrating the miserable state of other public facilities, including the nation’s universities, courts and government offices, as well as streets and slums.

They all were given the same title, “So if he comes, he will not be surprised,” a jab at the prime minister that reflected Egypt’s browbeaten sense of humor as well as a broader critique of the country’s ruling class, which rarely ventures into the lives of the ruled.

The complaints illustrate decades of government failure in Egypt, as seen from the overlooked corners of the country’s heaving cities and scattered towns. Like its predecessors, the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi offers few ways for the public to make its concerns heard by decision-makers. The turn to social media, so recently an instrument of political upheaval here, now feels more like a last resort.

“There are so many complaints, so many frustrations, so many things that people want to scream about,” said Rasha A. Abdulla, a journalism professor at the American University in Cairo. “This is pretty much the only way to talk to people in power right now — there are no other venues.”

El-Sissi’s government still enjoys broad support, and it is credited by many here with improving electrical service and putting police officers back on the streets to keep order. His expected announcement of the opening of an additional waterway of the Suez Canal in a few weeks’ time will also be popular, despite uncertainty about the project’s economic benefits.

But el-Sissi essentially rules by decree, and Egyptians seem more and more isolated from their government. There has been no sitting Parliament for more than three years, leaving the country without even the rubber-stamp legislatures of the past. Local government officials are regarded as corrupt, powerless or absentee. Much of the Egyptian news media is occupied largely with transmitting the government’s message to the public, not vice versa. And the most outspoken opposition voices have either gone to jail or left the country.

El-Sissi has promised to hold parliamentary elections, perhaps this fall. Few people seem to expect those elections to deliver a legislature willing to fight for the public.

“We see them before elections — after, we don’t see their face,” George Gamal, a 26-year-old pharmacist, said of the lawmakers who have represented Imbaba, his Cairo neighborhood, over the years.

Imbaba is featured on one of the new Facebook pages, with posts lamenting the woeful state of the streets, unpaved and prone to flooding. Heaps of uncollected trash line the road outside his pharmacy, next to a merry-go-round set up for neighborhood children.

“Nothing is improving here — it’s as it was before,” Gamal said. “There should be members of Parliament, but not for show.”

He suggested that a social media account be created to let people send complaints directly to the local governor. And he said the prime minister, Ibrahim Mehleb, ought to see the neighborhood for himself: “He needs to talk to people here.”

If he does, though, he should come alone, without the usual entourage, said Mahmoud Rifai, who runs a toilet shop down the street. The kinds of high-profile visits Egyptian politicians usually make, with television cameras in tow, rarely do any lasting good, Rifai said: “They clean the streets only when they come.”

Even if Mehleb’s presence would be helpful, though, he cannot be everywhere at once. One of the Facebook pages shows mountains of garbage in the port city of Alexandria and in Minya, in Upper Egypt, as well as in Cairo. Another page, focused on government services, shows an unaccountably shuttered Environmental Affairs office in the Nile Delta and chaotic heaps of file folders in a central Cairo administrative office.

University students complain of overstuffed lecture halls and rigged systems that allow children of the elite to become teaching assistants. One photograph shows a student-affairs representative shopping during office hours — buying deodorant from a vendor and “performing his duties to the fullest.”

More serious allegations on a page about the courts included what were said to be the going rates for bribes in one circuit, and accusations of nepotism against Egypt’s public prosecutor, who was assassinated in late June. The page was available last week but has since been taken down.

The hospitals page was the most read, and the most disturbing. One photo showed a cockroach crawling up a blood bag; another showed six cats underneath the bed of a man with a bandaged leg. A doctor wrote of an infant who needed emergency surgery but was turned away by an overflowing hospital and died.

The pages appear to have had an impact. Television stations have interviewed the people who created them and reported on some of the complaints, and the Interior Ministry promised to investigate a police officer who was accused of abusive and threatening behavior.

But while “it is great when something happens,” Abdulla of the American University said, “At the end of the day, you need to have a system. There are no checks and balances, there is a huge deal of impunity, and no one gets blamed. Or if they do, it’s verbally, for the sake of the media.

“Every one of these campaigns is a very serious outcry from the public,” she said. “And these things build up over time.”

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