CAIRO: A coupe of days ago, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif announced a new strategy to clean out 29 slums deemed “unsafe , as part of a national project that will involve civil society in coordination with the local councils and the ministries of housing, finance and local development.
The project includes plans to contain the spread of these aashwa’i (random) housing settlements, to offer alternative land to residents in cases where the current slums cannot be rebuilt.
It all sounds too good to be true, especially if one were to take a look at the history of this phenomenon in Cairo alone.
According to UN-Habitat’s 2003 Global Report on Human Settlements titled “The Challenge of Slums which includes a case study on Cairo, Cairo slums can be traced back to the explosive post-World War II population growth.
The study contends that it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that slums really started to appear, with little official resistance to informal and illegal subdivision and construction on the agricultural lands at the urban fringes.
The slums, continues the study, started off from existing satellite villages because rural housing was unregulated, which meant that uncontrolled development could be ‘overlooked’.
“During the 1967 to 1973 period of military conflict, the study reads, “all formal development in Cairo froze as the war effort soaked up most of the financial resources available. Demographic growth, however, continued unabated, including evacuees from the Canal Zone, and informal settlement growth boomed. Substantial urban fringe areas, already largely subdivided, were sold during this period, expanding the urban limits. This was further compounded by expansion from the satellite villages.
From 1974 to 1985, the remittances from Egyptians working in the Gulf during the oil boom boosted investment and so attracted more Egyptian workers to Cairo’s urban informal areas, thus exacerbating the situation on the city’s fringes.
Only recently, the study says, did the Egyptian government formally recognize the existence of “deteriorated and underserved urban residential areas and apply the term aashwa’i to them, indicating their unplanned and illegal nature.
The study outline the various types of slum areas as: informal settlements on private, former agricultural lands; informal settlements on desert state lands, considered land invasion and construction without permits, to which the government policy grants post-facto legalization; deteriorated sections of the old medieval city core comprising a mix of dilapidated and sound buildings, marred by ownership disputes and lack of maintenance; and deteriorated urban pockets in various inner-city areas of Cairo dating back to the early 20th century.
In the period between 1974 and 1985 the government started to address the booming informal areas by preserving state and agricultural lands from encroachments, says the study, but still no figures are available on current slum dynamics. The Egyptian government merely officially recognized how vast the informal areas were.
Starting in 1992, after some poorer urban areas were perceived as breeding grounds for political instability, the government finally launched a program to improve aashwa’i areas throughout Egypt.
Yes, that was 1992, 17 years ago.
What was done throughout the 17 long years to deal with what many observers and increasingly many Egyptian filmmakers, are depicting as a ticking human time-bomb, completely eludes me.
In fact, the 2003 study concludes that recent comparisons of satellite pictures indicate that informal encroachment on agricultural lands continues at a rate triple that of “formal expansion.
Nothing brought home the extent of the failed government strategy to deal with Cairo’s slums than the Duweiqa rockslide disaster whose one-year anniversary is a couple of months away. Not only did the natural disaster reveal the dire conditions endured by hundreds of families where ramshackle huts provide crude one-room shelters for its impoverished residents, but it also drew attention to the level of crime festering in this area.
Notorious for its drug pushers and thugs for hire, even the police can’t step into it without sufficient protection. Theft, murder and all forms of violence will naturally thrive in a place where people literally don’t have room to breathe and where utilities we take for granted such as water and electricity are a distant luxury.
The big frustration in their case was that only a stone’s throw away from one of the poorest areas in Cairo stood the white apartment blocks – Suzanne Mubarak’s ‘gift’ to the poor – which lay empty. The prevalent belief was that the dual scourge of incompetence and corruption had blighted the project from the start, with rumors that the government apartments, which should have been given to them for free, are sold off for profit. Residents also claim that house-seekers come from outside Cairo to buy the flats officially allocated for them.
It took a human catastrophe that killed hundreds of people for the government to hand over the apartments to their rightful owners.
So let’s just hope that the new and improved plans to rid the country of its “unsafe slums won’t suffer the same 17-year hiatus and that we won’t have to wait for another catastrophe to wake the government up from its deep corruption-infested slumber.
Rania Al Malkyis the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.