From Slum to Residential Area - The Cairo Example
About half of the Egyptian capital is covered by what are known as 'informal neighbourhoods', in other words: slums. Western development aid organisations apply this term because poor newcomers have built houses there without the state's approval. The great majority of Cairo's citizens live in these informal neighbourhoods, and both development organisations and the Egyptian government are working to improve living conditions there.
From the top of the buildings on Mokattam Mountain, on the eastern edge of the Nile valley, you have an excellent view of the Egyptian capital and its development. A district known as 'Uptown Cairo' is currently being built even further east. The name rightly suggests that this is a high-class area for people who have long been rich or who have recently become so. So far, fully-grown palm trees have been installed on levelled sites, the idea being that they will eventually provide the fashionable district with visual protection. To the west of this area, close to the city centre, is the poor district of Manshiet Nasr. Ongoing development of the slopes of the high plateau can clearly be seen from the heights of Mokattam. The oldest houses are low, crooked, and made of unfired bricks. They are found in the wadis, channels carved out of the mountainside over the millennia by sudden downpours. Higher up is a second generation of houses, constructed with reinforced concrete frames and bricks. All of these houses have one feature in common: there is rubbish on their roofs. 'There's no refuse collection in this illegally established district,' says Khalil Shaath, who works for the 'participation-orientated city development' programme. This was initiated by the German Society for Technological Co-operation (GTZ) and is today run jointly by the GTZ and the Egyptian government. As a result, the people living there dispose of their own rubbish. What cannot be re-used, fed to animals or burned ends up on the roof. In addition, a terrible stench arises from the slopes that have not yet been built upon. In Manshiet Nasr there's almost no drainage, and open spaces serve as toilets.
A favourite locationShaath has been working since 2004 on a GTZ project for the development of Manshiet Nasr, under the direction of Marion Fischer from Germany. Egyptian-born Shaath knows the area and its inhabitants well. 'Slums are nothing new in Cairo. Newcomers have settled on the city's big cemeteries for ages.' But for forty years now this illegally-established district has been a headache for the city administration. Back in 1967, Egypt suffered serious defeat in the war against Israel, and despair and chaos engulfed the country. Tens of thousands of people left their home villages in Upper Egypt in search of a better life in the capital. Anyone who couldn't live with relatives found shelter in the urban area's extensive burial-grounds. Immigrants from Upper Egypt became increasingly numerous, and they started building unauthorised settlements on the eastern edge of the city, opposite one of the biggest cemeteries.
Mokattam Mountain became the settlers' favourite location. 'The deciding factor in this choice was that the area was both virtually uninhabited and close to the city centre,' explains Shaath. That meant that building material could easily be procured and settlers could quickly reach their place of work, if they had one. The settlers called this illegally-established district Manshiet Nasr (Nasser's Foundation), in remembrance of a President who was much revered by poor Egyptians despite losing the 1967 war. After the pioneers had gained a foothold they sent for their wives and children.
Both then and now the chief objective was to resettle the entire extended family. In Shaath's opinion, 'Only keeping the family together gives a settler from a rural area the feeling of being at home.' However, those who had initially stayed behind were less ready to take risks than the pioneers, and they usually made having a secure job a condition of moving to Cairo. The pioneers had relatively little trouble in finding work for their brothers and cousins because people from Upper Egypt worked hard for low wages. In that way - continues Shaath - the population of Manshiet Nasr has swelled to 800,000. Today, he says, more than 50% of the area of Cairo consists of informal neighbourhoods in which three-quarters of the Egyptian capital's twelve million inhabitants live.
'The state did not intervene to stop settlement until ten years ago,' Shaath says. The administration was presumably happy that citizens had organised the construction of houses themselves, and no one demanded the kind of infrastructure usual in the West. Then increasing criminality in Cairo and a number of attempted murders instigated by slum dwellers roused the state from its sleep. 'People in the ministries began to understand that there must be a link between violence and poor housing conditions,' comments Shaath...
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lives in Cairo as correspondent for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.
Translated by Tim Nevill
Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Fikrun wa Fann
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