Last week, as I was stuck in the famous Cairo traffic on the 6 October Bridge with two friends, I couldn’t help but stare at the sea of billboards that cover the nearby buildings. In between the billboards, one cannot fail to notice the many new steel and glass buildings rising amid the ruins of demolished old rundown buildings.
Busy worksites seem to be everywhere in the Greater Cairo area these days as the state finally decided to clean up the capital and restore its shine. The first step was to get rid of the ‘Ashwaa’iyyat’, the informal communities that have mushroomed in the capital of the largest Arab country over the past 60 years.
The pre-1960s Cairo was an architectural wonder, the envy of major European cities. Fatimid and Mamlouk-style structures sat gloriously beside modernist buildings. The city of one thousand minarets also exhibited love for turn-of-the-century modern architecture.
Few years after the July 1952 revolution, which overthrew the monarchy, the slums, Al Ashwaa’iyyat, began to crop in Cairo for several reasons. Millions of people, mostly from far framing areas, moved to Cairo to look for new jobs as the large farming areas outside the capital were abandoned following the land reform laws. The industrialisation of the economy by Gamal Abdel Nasser needed more workers than Cairo could afford.
Due to Egypt’s high birth rate and many other reasons, millions of people moved to the city but could hardly afford to rent, therefore, informal (illegally built houses) communities began to appear on farmlands and state property. For the next 50 years, these communities occupied most of the Cairo’s area without proper building basics such as water and power connections or sanitation.
A human ocean
Today, it is estimated that up to 60 per cent of the Greater Cairo’s 21 million inhabitants live in these slums. At least one million live in Ezbet El Haggana, one of the biggest slums in the northern part of the capital. Just like all other Ashwaa’iyyat, it is a mix of dilapidated buildings where the chaotic web of satellite TV dishes and electric cables occupy the roofs and lampposts, sewage water fill the streets and the smoke of the burning garbage can be seen everywhere.
The slums maybe the result of the inability of the successive governments to provide affordable housing for the poor residents of the city, but they are also a major reason for the suffocating pollution and the traffic jams Cairo has become famous for.
With their irregular status, the slums have also become shelters for criminals, drug dealer and militants. For five decades, government after government failed to address the problem. The slums eventually took over the city. That is until the current government of President Abdel Fattah Al Sissi decided to solve it once and for all.
According to official statistics, there are 1,221 informal communities in Egypt and 67 of them are located in Greater Cairo. That is an unsurmountable challenge. But so far, the project that President Al Sissi launched five years ago is progressing and things are looking good. Hundreds of thousands of slum residents have been relocated to temporary but affordable housing across the country until their informal communities are replaced with new, modern building with fully furnished flats.
Monthly rent-to-own sum
Families will have to pay a symbolic monthly rent-to-own sum of no more than $25 (Dh91). One of the constructions requirements in the new communities, for example, is that every new building must have an underground garage — to reduce the traffic congestion.
The new communities are supposed to also have schools, sports facilities, medical centres, shops, places of worship and access to public transport, according to the project budget that was discussed at the parliament recently.
The landmark project is a major part of President Al Sissi’s to diversify the economy with Cairo at its heart — to attract foreign investment to an economy that has been squeezed by successive uprisings since 2011 and then the coronavirus pandemic. One of the famous slums, the Maspero triangle in the heart of the capital, will be developed into “a commercial and entertainment hub,” according to the project plans.
Back to me at the traffic jam on 6 October bridge. I thought of other Arab countries that have also been hit by the 2011 uprisings and others that haven’t. I thought of Iraq, Lebanon, Syria. With Egypt, those countries for decades were the unmatched centres of economy, politics, and arts in the Arab world. Today, most of these countries are plagued with: an absurd war (Syria), economic collapse, corruption, and rule of the militias (Iraq and Lebanon).
Egypt could have suffered the same fate post-2011. But its people and government decided to rather focus on moving their country forward. There have been some painful economic decisions, such as floating the currency which led to skyrocketing inflation.
But as an editor friend told me, the Egyptian people recognised the benefits for the long-term health of the economy. The project of replacing the decades-old Ashwaa’iyyat shows that this government was serious in charting a better future for Egypt, he says. One can feel the prevailing sense of optimism in Egypt.
So why can’t Iraq and Lebanon leaders for example learn from the Egyptian experience? I asked myself. It is painful to see how beautiful and resource-rich countries like these two states or Libya, or Sudan or Tunisia succumb so willingly to the ruse of futile political games and corruption that continue to deny their people’s hopes for stability, prosperity and sustainable development.