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Rockslide Shakes Slim Faith in Regime

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CAIRO, Egypt -- Hind Hussein returned from the hospital after going into false labor and was nodding off early Saturday when the cliff above her shantytown home rumbled and boulders the size of tugboats rained down, crushing scores of apartments and houses in a storm of rocks, grit and dust.

Hussein and a few neighbors ran for cover in a nearby mosque, but for many people the rock slide erupted too quickly. At least 24 people have been reported dead and dozens more injured; residents in the crowded Douaiqa slum in east Cairo say hundreds are missing beneath rocks and splintered houses.

"The government is not doing anything to rescue the people," said Hussein as friends and families clawed through debris to get to loved ones. "The government is just watching. Some people are still alive in there. We hear them shout and ask for help. Some are even calling us from mobile phones."

By dusk, whole families were unaccounted for. Men and women covered in dust and sweat pushed at immovable rocks, listening for survivors in an eerie vigil punctuated by rising anger at the government. Rescue crews from Egypt's civil defense agency were hours late in arriving, and the people of the shantytown blamed authorities for ignoring the poor.

"While we were digging to rescue people, the civil defense personnel were just watching us and doing nothing," said Ghareeb Atayya, who spent hours searching for his neighbors. "We have been rescuing babies, old men and women. I rescued around seven people and not all of them were still alive."

Many Egyptians view the government of President Hosni Mubarak as negligent, corrupt and incompetent at handling crises. In August, the upper house of Parliament was gutted because the emergency response to fire was so poorly executed. In July, a court acquitted a Mubarak-appointed lawmaker charged in the deaths of 1,000 people who drowned when an unsafe ferry he owned sank in the Red Sea in 2006.

Such headlines have become national embarrassments and have further agitated a population that is enduring joblessness, persistent high inflation and a government that silences and imprisons members of political opposition parties. In a country where 45 percent of the people live on less than $2 a day, Egyptian workers of all stripes protest in the streets for higher wages and a widening chorus of activist bloggers have begun campaigns against the ruling National Democratic Party.

The rock slide, which occurred about 7 a.m., drew new criticism against authorities and highlighted the danger on the cliffs of the Muqattam hills around Cairo. The cliffs were weakened by quarry mining and have become more fragile under pressure from expanding slums in this city of 17 million people.

Tumbling cliffs in a nearby area killed 30 people in 1994. On Saturday, Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazief said in a statement: "We are following the case step by step and providing care and comfort for the residents. We would like to remind people of the danger of building informal housing in dangerous areas."

Sitting among her neighbors on a hill of garbage, Sabah Mohamed worried about her daughter, Safaa Adel, who disappeared beneath the rocks.

"She had to do the laundry this morning, so she woke up and went out to buy a detergent in an alley hit by the rocks," said Mohamed. "I blame the whole government for what is happening. It has not done anything so far."

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