By Heba Fahmy
CAIRO: Protesters demanding affordable government housing have been holding a sit-in in front of the state TV building Maspero for a week, leaving the rest of their family members huddled in small tents in Madinat Al-Salam on the outskirts of Cairo.
Despite staying only a few meters away from a children’s playground and air conditioned offices belonging to a youth center in Sbiko area, this tent city is worlds apart from the center’s luxury with sewage water running through the tents and the stench of garbage infiltrating the air.
The residents of the camp can only look through the gate that separates them from the decent living they long for.
“I just want four walls to protect me and my children,” Warda, 26, said carrying her paralyzed daughter. “Is that too much to ask?”
“Dogs with scabies live better than we do,” Walaa Saeid, 25, told Daily News Egypt.
Mother of five, Sabah Abdel Moula, said her eight-month-old daughter Shahd died in the camp.
“Some people said she died from dehydration because of the heat inside the tents, others said she was stung by a snake or a scorpion,” Abdel Moula said.
Imam Badr, 32, broke down in tears in front of his family saying, “I’d rather be shot dead than be incapable of providing for my children and giving them a roof over their heads.”
One of the protesters’ at Maspero, Tamer Mahmoud, 33, drowned while he was bathing in the Nile River on Saturday. Mahmoud left behind a pregnant wife and a four-year-old daughter.
“My son died so he could get [a roof over his head],” Mahmoud’s mother, Sabah Suleiman told DNE.
The protesters had closed the road leading to Maspero on Thursday in a bid to pressure the government to meet their demands.
On Thursday, their names were taken by security officials who promised to provide them with housing, after which they decided to open the road for traffic.
Protesters were told that a committee would visit them on Sunday to fulfill that promise, however, no committee had showed up by press time.
The residents say they were forcibly evicted from their apartments in Al-Nahda area in Madinat Al-Salam, following the January 25 Revolution.
They said that reports on thugs taking over apartments in the area scared the landlords who decided to take preemptive measures and evict them.
Others couldn’t afford to pay the rent after their daily wages were cut, after the economic slump that followed the revolution.
“Although my [apartment] contract wasn’t over yet, the landlord and his relatives attacked my husband with a knife and forced us to leave the apartment,” Warda said.
“There were no police forces or police stations working at the time, so we couldn’t resort to the law to get our apartment back,” Badr said.
Most of the residents are construction workers or microbus drivers whose daily wages were deeply affected by the revolution.
“My husband used to work with a famous architect as a construction worker,” Saeid said. “Now we can barely make ends meet.”
“My husband was a taxi driver, but the car was attacked during the revolution and he was fired,” Amal Abdel Halim, 36, said. “Now we have nothing.”
The residents were first transferred to a camp in Al-Nahda area in February. The former government headed by Ahmed Shafiq promised to give them apartments within one month.
In March, Shafiq resigned and Essam Sharaf was appointed as the new prime minister. The residents then held a 10-day sit in-front of the Cabinet reiterating their demands.
Sharaf transferred them to the camp in Sbiko area, and promised to give apartments to those who direly needed them within one month.
Six committees conducted field research on the camp’s residents to verify whether they were eligible for government apartments or not, according to Cairo governor Abdel Qawi Khalifa.
Khalifa said last Tuesday that 126 cases out of 1,033 cases proved eligible for receiving government housing.
However, camp residents claim that only around 10 families received housing, while the other 116 cases included names that they had never heard of.
“These people who received government housing weren’t camping here with us,” Warda said. “Where did they come from?”
Residents claimed that the committees were bribed to include people that already had government apartments, so they could rent them out.
“The tyrant corrupt government left and is now replaced by another one,” Badr said.
The women refuted claims that they were thugs attempting to snatch government housing.
“If I had an apartment to stay in, I wouldn’t make my children live in this dump,” Saeid said.
The residents said they feared for their safety in the camp, and claim to be attacked by thugs and drug addicts every other night.
Abdel Halim said she was attacked last Wednesday while her husband was protesting in Maspero.
“I was alone sleeping with my five children when a man barged in my tent and tried to steal my pots and pans,” Abdel Halim said. “I own nothing but pots and pans.”
Another woman, 55-year-old Walaa, also recounted a similar incident. “A huge guy stormed into my tent last night demanding to take it,” she said, “I ran out and screamed for help and the men chased him out of the camp.”
According to residents, the military forces protected the camp until early May when the Imbaba clashes took place, forcing the military to withdraw and secure Imbaba.
Police forces were then deployed around the camp in order to secure it.
However, residents claim that a police officer molested a four-year-old boy and the residents demanded the police forces withdraw from the area.
“We try to call the police now when thugs and drug addicts attack our tents, but they refuse to come,” Warda said.
While the residents hailed the revolution, they said that they were affected by the economic slump that followed it the most.
“The youth did what we’ve been wanting to do for ages,” Warda said. “The revolution gave us our voices and now we can speak out and call for our rights.”
Manal El-Tiby, head of the Egyptian Center for Housing Rights, told DNE that these were the repercussions of the former regime’s corruption and lack of planning.
“Many people have received more than one apartment from government housing projects because they pay bribes to the officials,” El-Tiby said.
El-Tiby explained that the government should reexamine these cases and establish laws that prevent home owners from closing their apartments for more than six months, while other people are forced to live on the streets.
“There are 6 million apartments that are closed and no one is benefiting from them,” she said.
She added that the government should set a budget for emergency housing to deal with crises.
“The conditions these people are living in now are inhumane and unbearable,” she said.
Residents say the camp is not safe for their children. (Daily News Egypt Photo / By Heba Fahmy)
A housing rights expert said the conditions the residents are living in are “inhumane.” (Daily News Egypt Photo / By Heba Fahmy)