Struggle waged by poorest communities lays bare challenges facing post-Hosni Mubarak Egypt
The residents of al-Me’adessa street have no idea when the rocks will fall: it could be at night while the neighbourhood is sleeping, or during the day when children are up playing on the roof. But they do know that the clifftop towering 20 metres above their ramshackle homes is slowly crumbling, and that eventually it will collapse down upon them – as it has already done a few miles along the road, killing more than 100 people who were living in the shantytowns below.
“Every minute of every day, we live in fear,” said Umm Rahman, a mother of three. “We want to get out of here now, but there’s nowhere else to go.”
Most Egyptians will never have heard of al-Me’adessa street, a tangle of electrical wiring, scattered construction debris and steep mounds of domestic waste nestled deep within one of Cairo’s poorest informal settlements in the shadows of the Mokattam mountain. But the struggle being waged here has laid bare the staggering obstacles ahead for the architects of the new, post-Mubarak Egypt – and raised divisive questions about what the country’s revolution really stands for.
Al-Me’adessa is home to 150 families, part of a 12 million-strong community of Egyptians living in the sprawling, unplanned slum areas – known as ashwa’iyat, literally meaning random or haphazard – that have mushroomed over the past three decades as a result of sharp demographic growth, a widening chasm between rich and poor, and the indifference of the regime which allowed an acute housing crisis to develop unchecked. Most live in homes that are unfit for humans or at grave risk of floods and, like Umm Rahman and her neighbours, rockslides.
Despite up to 1m apartments lying empty across the capital as a result of years of property speculation under Hosni Mubarak, a dearth of affordable housing means that most have nowhere else to go. But now, in the aftermath of the dictator’s ousting, Egypt’s ashwa’iyat community is beginning to raise its voice.
“In the past we were living without any respect for our lives,” explained Zamzam Mohamed Abdel Nabi, a 35-year-old resident of al-Me’adessa who has been leading a local campaign demanding that the government rehouse them. “Currently we’re optimistic that things could change. But the state is still fragile and we don’t want to profit from the situation for our own self-interest. This is the transition period, and in such a period the important thing is to build, not destroy.”
Her dilemma is a common one among the 44% of Egyptians living below the poverty line: with old certainties dissolved and the nation in flux, now appears to be the perfect time to press for a better standard of living from a revolution that has already transformed the state’s political apparatus.
But the country’s ruling generals have cracked down harshly on what they call “sectoral” interests, insisting that Egypt is too unstable at the moment to meet the vast array of social expectations that have exploded since Mubarak’s fall. Strikes and protests have been outlawed on the grounds that marginalised groups – be they workers, women or slum-dwellers – should stay quiet until the transition to civilian democracy is complete.
It is an argument that cuts little ice with Salil Shetty, secretary general of Amnesty International, who visited Cairo this week before the publication of an Amnesty report highlighting the appalling conditions of Egyptian ashwa’iyat and calling on the interim government to seize “an historic opportunity to meet their obligations by respecting and realising one of the key demands of protesters – to ensure that the millions of underprivileged people are treated with dignity and their human rights respected”.
“The revolution was as much about poverty and inequality as it was about political freedoms and repression of the civil kind,” Shetty told the Guardian. “The authorities cannot say they’ll first deal with the political issues and then the socioeconomic issues – these are so intertwined and indivisible that they have to be addressed together.”
In recent weeks the lack of affordable accommodation has hit the headlines after residents of El-Nahda and El-Salam cities, who claim they were illegally evicted in the midst of this year’s anti-government uprising, occupied the street in front of central Cairo’s radio and television building. They have clashed several times with security forces and one protester drowned this month after trying to wash his clothes in the Nile. Fellow demonstrators say they have been forbidden from using local bathrooms and have nowhere else to go. Egypt’s prime minister, Essam Sharaf, recently announced £16m of funding for upgrading slum areas, but compared with the scale of the problem it represents little more than a drop in the ocean.
More worryingly for activists like Abdel Nabi, the process of relocating slum residents often occurs without consultation with local communities. According to the Egyptian Centre for Housing Rights, the government regularly conducts large-scale forced evictions and house demolitions, “using bulldozers, central security personnel, firearms and, in some cases, tear gas … leaving victims in a serious state of destitution and vulnerability.”
Under Mubarak the Egyptian authorities unveiled a grand vision of urban development in the capital named Cairo 2050, which aims to create an “internationally competitive” city and includes plans to “redistribute” millions of poorer residents. Public records suggest that much of the land currently occupied by ashwa’iyat, including al-Me’adessa street, is likely to be sold to luxury property developers, raising fears that Cairo 2050 is aimed more at securing profits for property tycoons than at housing solutions for some of the city’s most vulnerable people. Whether the plan will continue to be implemented in the post-Mubarak era is remains to be seen – and could depend largely on the level of grassroots resistance from slum-dwellers on the ground.
Egypt’s ashwa’iyat remain one of the great enigmas of the modern Middle East – densely packed, blighted by lack of investment and yet bursting with efficient, informally constructed support networks through which residents have built basic services for themselves.
But experts such as David Sims, author of a new book on Cairo, believe that a sea change in social attitudes is needed if the gains won through the anti-Mubarak uprising are to be felt equally throughout the population.
“The revolutionary spirit is so far focused on changing national political structures, and even if successful there is no guarantee that the manipulators and opportunists and bribers, so prominent in the past, will not still find fertile ground,” he writes. “Another, more complicated revolution is needed for fundamental reform of ministries and governorates, the courts, and economic authorities so that real accountability and transparency begin to dominate urban development.”
Shetty agrees. “Egypt is not a poor country: it’s a middle-income country that is one of the biggest recipients of US aid and boasts some of the richest people in the world, so by no measure can the authorities claim they don’t have the finances to deal with the housing crisis,” he argued. “If they don’t take quick action now our view is that they will be setting themselves up for a second revolution.”