Egypt is home to 1,100 slum areas, 350 of which are in and around Cairo. In addition to their lack of basic facilities such as electricity, running water, and sewage, many of those slums are designated as “unsafe zones”. The Informal Settlements Development Fund (ISDF) identifies four levels of unsafety based on the threat they pose to citizens. Level one is geological and environmental factors; two, conditions suitable for building; three, proximity to high-voltage power cables and exposure to industrial pollution; and four, location on state-owned land.
Rockslides, which fall under level one, are among the most fatal manifestations of lack of safety in slum areas built on mountain edges. They played a major role in prompting the Egyptian government to address the issue of unsafe zones. With the aim of having a slum-free Egypt by 2030, the government launched a project to urbanize slum areas that are fit for living and evacuate those that are not. The initiative seems promising yet far from easy, and its success is contingent upon a number of complex factors.
ISDF manager Khaled Seddik said the project started with the eastern Cairo slums of Manshiet Nasser and Duweiqa. These areas are considered the most problematic because of their location and the recurrence of rockslides there. “Developing Manshiet Nasser and Duweiqa involves demolishing houses and buildings deemed unsafe. Houses on the mountain’s edge have been demolished and the residents are being relocated,” Seddik said.
Seddik added that 215,000 units have been built to take in relocated residents and another 80,000 will be completed by the end of 2019. According to Seddik, Port Said will soon be the first slum-free city in Egypt following the completion of the remaining housing units.
Hani Younis, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, said that 600,000 social housing units have so far been constructed to accommodate residents of unsafe areas across the country. But he highlighted the challenge of solving the issue of slum areas in Cairo. According to him, an estimated 40 percent of Cairo’s population live in informal settlements or slum areas, and 75 percent of urban areas across Egypt are unplanned.
Journalist Walt Curnow underlines the downside of the evacuations, especially to distant areas such as the compound of al-Asmarat in the Mokattam neighborhood in southeastern Cairo. Many relocated residents still go to work in the slums where they lived and cannot afford daily transportation expenses.
In 2008, a rockslide in Duweiqa killed 119 people and destroyed many houses. Residents interviewed by Curnow argue that the rockslides that occurred in following years caused no damage at all, but the government demolished houses anyway. “They claim, instead, that the government has wanted to demolish many houses in the area for a long time because, among other reasons, they see the area as unsafe to live in, and use this as a pretext,” he writes.
Curnow quotes urban planner Ahmed Zazaa as saying that safety is not the reason that slums are demolished and residents are evacuated. According to Zazaa, “there is no logic” to these activities. He criticized the government for not taking into consideration the effect on residents. “For the state, there is this tendency to remove lots of informal areas and relocate residents to these gated cities like al-Asmarat. They don’t care what will happen.”
Urban planner David Sims, also quoted by Curnow, has the same view. He calls the relocations a form of “social engineering” in which residents are uprooted and deprived of their “social capital”. Curnow cites the examples of the Boulaq neighborhood, also known as the Maspero Triangle, and the Warraq Island as the most recent cases of evacuations that are not related to safety, but rather to investment opportunities these areas offer.
There has also been heated debate about the fate of residents of slum areas that are to be developed rather than demolished. It followed claims that the government does not provide them with a place to stay. The Ministry of Housing and Urban Communities refuted those claims in a statement.
“Before the urbanization of any slum areas, residents are taken to temporary housing units in which they stay until their houses are ready,” said the statement. “They then go back to the newly constructed units that are fully furnished and equipped with electric appliances.” The statement added that the project to develop slum areas offered thousands of families a safe and dignified life. “Whoever says otherwise only aims at undermining the state’s efforts in resolving the problem of slum areas.”
Architect and civil engineer Hussein Sabbour saw the eradication of slum areas as a means of countering terrorism, hence protecting national security. “It is important to provide youth crammed in slum areas with proper housing because this nips terrorism in the bud,” he said. “Many Egyptians wouldn’t have resorted to violence had they been given a dignified life and a suitable shelter.”
The link between slums and terrorism was underlined in a study conducted by the Arab Organization for Administrative Development, affiliated with the Arab League. According to the study, terrorist groups tend to recruit youth from slums to take advantage of the poor living conditions and the rise of unemployment in these areas.
Sabbour expressed his full support for the state’s project and praised the creative way it dealt with several neighborhoods like al-Sayeda Zeinab in central Cairo. “The government made use of the location of al-Sayeda Zeinab’s slum areas and made all the streets pedestrian like what it did with al-Muizz Street, and allocated the ground floors of all buildings to stores whose revenues would cover the expenses of urbanizing the area.”
When asked if the state has a unified strategy for developing slum areas, Sabbour answered that this is not possible because all slum areas are not the same. “You cannot compare a slum area on top of a mountain that is prone to rockslides with one that overlooks the Nile,” he explained. “The most important thing is that the state manages to find funding for these projects and conducts thorough studies that take into consideration the social and economic aspects of each case.”