Of sunken ships and exorcising demons

Countries, even democratic ones, are like individuals loath to engage in introspection and self-criticism

Hisham Melhem

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We judge the progress and humanity of states and societies by a variety of standards, among them how they deal with the death of their citizens, whether in accidents and catastrophes, or in political violence perpetrated by the state or in civil strife. How a society values the lives of its citizens, how it deals with current and recent violent trauma, how it forms its collective memory about past political upheavals; whether to choose living in denial or to exorcise its demons, says a lot about that society.

Disaster in the Yellow Sea

This is, in part a tale of two ships condemned by the criminal negligence of their crews to sink, one in the Yellow Sea, the other in the Red Sea, thousands of miles away and eight years apart. The sinking of the South Korean ferry Sewol on 16 April was a man-made disaster born out of corruption, deception, cowardice and criminal negligence. The captain and most of the crew abandoned ship and left behind more than 300 young men and women to drown in the cold waters of the Yellow Sea, with some of them describing their harrowing last moments to their loved ones instantly on their electronic devices.

The disaster has shaken the South Korean nation to its core. Along with wrenching tales of students frantically bidding farewells to parents far away, and stories of heroism by others to save their classmates, there were acts of betrayals and abandonment on the parts of the adults who were supposed to be their guardians. The ship was on a rendezvous with its grim destiny long before the hand of an inexperienced sailor made a quick turn and sent the ship on its final journey to the depth of the sea. The initial investigation revealed that illegal modifications to the ship to increase passenger cabins, storage capacity, and reports that it was carrying cargo more than three times the allowed limits, may have contributed to its demise.

A bereaved society and a humbled state

The lengthy trauma of recovering the bodies, the daily funeral processions, the shared farewell messages, the wailing mothers, the mounting rage against government incompetence and inefficient initial response, and more importantly the youth of the victims, have jolted the South Korean society in ways it did not experience before in peace times. The victims’ families were incessant in their criticism of what the authorities have done since the sinking of the ship, and what they did not do before the tragedy in implementing the maritime regulations that could have prevented it. A lone tragedy followed, but this one seems to have been driven by a sense of duty, honor and guilt. The vice principal of the high school who accompanied the students and was rescued when the ship sank, hanged himself with his belt from a tree not far from the gym where the relatives of the victims gathered.

The government launched a criminal investigation that resulted in the arrest of the ship’s captain and 14 other members of the crew, and vowed to continue the search until the last body was found. The initial inquiry uncovered a culture of deceit that blurred the lines between maritime industry and those government agencies that regulate it. The local media dubbed the cozy relationship between industry and government as a “maritime mafia”. But this was not enough. The public outrage led Prime Minister Chung Hong-won to tender his resignation. “Witnessing the sorrows of those who lost their loved ones and sadness and anger of the people, I felt the right thing for me to do was to take all responsibility as the prime minister”. President Park Geun-hye, who likened what the ferry’s captain did to an act of murder, admitted that the government had failed to prevent the disaster and bungled the initial response, offered her “heavy-hearted” sorrows for the loss of life saying “I don’t know how to apologize for the failure to prevent this accident…”

Disaster in the Red Sea

In the early hours of February 3nd 2006 fire broke out on the Al-Salam Boccaccio 98, an Egyptian ship on its way from Duba, Saudi Arabia to the Egyptian port of Safaga . The ship which was carrying 1414 passengers, more than permitted by the manufacturer, had a notorious safety record, sank within hours, after the captain and members of his crew abandoned the passengers to their fate. On that infamous day, 1033 passengers perished, in one of the deadliest maritime disasters in recent years. Like the South Korean ferry Sewol eight years later, the Al-Salam was also on a rendezvous with its grim destiny long before the fateful fire sent the ship to the bottom of the Red Sea. This Egyptian ship sank under the tremendous weight of corruption, a complex web of deceit born out of long history of conniving between the ship’s owner and government officials, shoddy inspection, and violations of maritime rules, as well as criminal negligence.

Egyptians were shocked at the high number of victims, but most of them were not shocked by the owner of the ship or the government’s reaction. The relatives of the passengers, mostly poor laborers from Southern Egypt, stormed the offices of the Al Salam Maritime, the owner of the ship, accused the government of mishandling the investigation, denounced the interior minister, and shouted “down with Mubarak”. Independent Egyptian newspapers accused the Mubarak regime of protecting the ship’s owner Mamdouh Ismail, a government-appointed member of Egypt’s parliamentary upper house, the Shura Council, who reportedly had a close relationship with President Mubarak’s chief of staff.

In my lifetime, three Arab leaders were accused of committing war crimes, or attempted genocide; Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan, Muammar Qaddafi of Libya, and Saddam Hussein of Iraq. A fourth, Bashar Assad of Syria deserves such an indictment.

Hisham Melhem

‘Wicked collaboration’

However, the corruption and deceit that doomed the ship before its actual demise, continued after the tragedy. Every report and investigation of the disaster, including one prepared by a committee formed by the Egyptian parliament, not a body known at that time for its independence, accused the owner and the crew of gross negligence. But the extent of the tragedy, made it difficult even for a compromised parliament to cover up the disaster. The committee stated that “the circumstances of the accident and its reasons point to a hideous image of corruption in a utility related to people’s lives”. The report condemned the “wicked collaboration” between the company and government officials. But the report, prepared by some members of President Mubarak’s party was careful not to mention the president’s name. However, a report prepared by the cabinet, undermined the parliament’s findings, and was so mild and general that it approached a cover-up when it claimed that the accident occurred because of a variety of reasons including “fate”. A decision by the prosecutor to ban Ismail, the owner from traveling and freezing his assets was dropped later, and two years after the tragedy Ismail was acquitted of manslaughter charges in the death of more than a thousand people. He was ordered to pay $57 million into a fund to compensate the victim’s families. Columnist Salama Ahmed Salama spoke the truth when he said the tragedy proved that the regime’s ‘hardheartedness and indifference in dealing with the human feelings of thousands of citizens who lost their loved ones, as a result of negligence and corruption.”

A tale of two countries

There is an intriguing economic tale between Egypt and South Korea that is obliquely relevant to our tale of two doomed ships. In 1960, the GDP per capita for South Korea was $155, and its population was 25 million. Egypt’s GDP per capita at the same time was $149, and its population was slightly more; 27 million. Fifty two years later the gap between the two countries is breathtaking. By 2012, the GDP per capita in South Korea had grown to a whopping $16,684 and its population doubled to 50 million. At the same time, Egypt’s GDP per capita has grown only to $1,976, and its population has tripled to 82 million.

Caught in a trap

But, if the sinking of the South Korean ship and the death of 300 students had shaken state and society in profound ways, it seemed that state and society in Egypt were, on the whole, immune to such tremors. No one committed suicide because of a sense of honor, duty or guilt. The prime minister did not tender his resignation, and certainly President Mubarak did not express the kind of “heavy-hearted” sorrows the President of South Korea expressed eight years later, and Mubarak’s regime was not shaken politically like what is happening now to the South Korean government. One can only speculate as to why the demise of more than a thousand Egyptians because of criminal negligence would not create a political tsunami that would sweep the regime away.

It seems that Egyptians, like many Arabs have been desensitized by the ubiquity of violence, cruelty and death in their midst. On the whole, victims of the frequent train wrecks, collapsed old and new apartment buildings, constructed with shoddy materials and not subjected to enough inspection, just as victims of natural disasters, are not cared for by the state and are left to their own devices. Being caught in a trap is what many Egyptians (like many Arabs) find themselves in. In ‘The Yacoubian Building’, novelist Alaa-Al-Aswany’s scathing, merciless indictment of modern Egyptian society, all characters are caught in such a trap. Every relationship is weaved around a web of deceit, exploitation, pretention, cruelty and coercion. After you finish the novel, you get the urge to take a very hot shower to cleanse yourself.

Did you say introspection?

Countries, even democratic ones, are like individuals loath to engage in introspection and self-criticism. In the last half century, many Arab states went through political upheavals, uprisings, mass killings, ethnic and sectarian violence and civil wars. In my lifetime, three Arab leaders were accused of committing war crimes, or attempted genocide; Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan, Muammar Qaddafi of Libya, and Saddam Hussein of Iraq. A fourth, Bashar Assad of Syria deserves such an indictment. These leaders are responsible for the killings of hundreds of thousands of their own people. Saddam Hussein extended his killing fields to Iran and Kuwait, Just as Bashar and his father before him extended their shooting range to Lebanon, where they hunted also Palestinians. Lebanon went through a devastating civil war in the mid 1970’s, followed by bouts of communal violence in subsequent years. In Yemen, periods of calm are the exception to the rule of violence. After ‘A Savage War of Peace’ against French colonialism, Algeria went through a ‘dirty war’ in the early 1990’s pitting a ruthless government against an equally ruthless Islamist opposition. In none of these countries, there was not even an attempt at soul searching, a hint of introspection or a faint attempt at a minimum of self-criticism. Denial is the preferred political ritual. The Lebanese, who may lay a claim to (exaggerated) political sophistication, had their share of chances to try to exorcise from their collective political memory the demons that led them, sometimes while they were cheering, to kill each other’s with abandon, failed repeatedly to do so.

It is very unlikely, that we will see in the foreseeable future any Arab country that went through the hell of civil wars, and mass killings attempting something cathartic as the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which brought the torturer and his victim to face each other, to try to heal and forgive but not to forget, and which helped that county’s transition beyond reconciliation and towards a full democracy and a more humane society. When I look at the recent past in many Arab lands, I feel the need to mourn the dead, when I look at the present, I feel the urge to sing hymns for the dying, and when I dare to look at the future, I am tempted to write lamentations for the tragic times to come.

This article was first published in Annahar on May 1, 2014.

Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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