North Africa, West Asia

Government failure to upgrade informal settlements in Egypt: a brief history

Is civil administration and planning in Egypt being run professionally according to research and analysis, or is it as ‘random’ as the housing it claims to improve?

Yahia Shawkat
23 November 2015

Image credit: Yahia Shawkat. All rights reserved.Over the last twenty years the Egyptian government has sanctioned two national programs for the development (rather than upgrade) of so-called 'ashwaeyat—literally randomly built housing—more than three programs for subsidised housing, and the establishment of more than five different government agencies to address housing and urban development, not to mention billions in public spending directed to these agencies’ programs.

Despite this, deprived communities still protest the dire state of public services and rising house prices, the government agencies complain of informal urban sprawl on agricultural land, and the media sensationalises the dangerous "'ashwaeyat" and "tomb" dwellers. Is civil administration and planning in Egypt being run professionally according to research and analysis, or is it as ‘random’ as the housing it claims to improve?

The ephemeral definition of 'ashwaeyat

Between 1993 and 2008, 'ashwaeyat were defined as "those [areas] difficult to control in terms of security because of their informal nature", according to a Parliamentary study outlining the first government project for the development of informal areas. This official interest after almost two decades of self-built housing was a reaction to an urban disaster, the earthquake of October 1992 that killed more than 500 people and left ten thousand families homeless; and a political disaster, the 'Republic' or 'Emirate' of Imbaba debacle where media exaggerated the social role played by Jama'a Islamiya after the earthquake in a working class district of Giza.

Thus the government's main aim was imposing state control on the forgotten informal areas through infrastructure projects like water, sewage, and roads, in 1201 areas it identified as informal, in addition to the demolition of 20 areas it decided unfit for development.

The 'development' plans were mostly focused on displacing the inhabitants, then selling off the land.

After 14 years—and the "development" of only a third of these areas according to the CAPMAS report—the definition of informal areas was changed and the national project quietly killed off.

The death of more than 115 people after a rock-slide in Al Duweiqa district in Cairo in September 2008 led the government to focus on what they called “unsafe areas”. These were seen as endangering residents due to four different criteria: their presence in unstable cliff areas or flood zones, the buildings' pronounced state of disrepair, the presence of sources of pollution, or the absence of secure tenure. Meanwhile, article 62 of the unified Building Law, law 119/2008, prohibited the extension of utilities to informal buildings—in other words, all the buildings which fell under the scope of work of the first informal housing development project.

And so, a National Map for Unsafe Areas was drawn up to “develop” 208,000 housing units in 404 unsafe areas and home to over 800,00 people—conveniently forgetting 12 million people still living in the remaining 871 undeveloped informal areas of the first project.

Despite the drastic downsizing, only 14 percent (by unit number) of "unsafe areas" were "developed" over the last six years, according to a recent report on Egypt's progress towards the millennium development goals.

The main reason behind the slow pace of the project was that the inhabitants in most of the areas slated for development resisted the plans, which were mostly focused on displacing the inhabitants—at times through forced eviction—then selling off the land for the purposes of real estate investment under a cost recovery mechanism called land value capture. The most famous of these communities are the Maspero Triangle and Ramlet Bulaq in Cairo, which were also part of the neoliberal Cairo 2050/2052 plan. Little known though is the Hamam area in Luxor, which happened to be in the way of the touristic Avenue of the Sphinxes carved through the city.

The third change began in 2014, when article 78 of the new constitution stipulated the right to adequate housing and the commitment of the state "to developing a comprehensive national plan to address the problem of 'ashwaeyat including re-planning and the provision of infrastructure...and improving citizens’ quality of life". This was the first appearance of the term 'ashwaeyat in the legislature, with some semblance of a definition for the problem and commitment to solving it.

The former Minister of Urban Renewal and Informal Settlements stated that no one would be forcibly evicted, the first such promise by an official, and worked on legislative amendments to guarantee secure tenure for inhabitants of informal areas. But after the ministry was dissolved, work on the law and the amendments has been postponed indefinitely.

The whimsical establishment and dissolution of government agencies 

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Image credit: Yahia Shawkat. All rights reserved.In May 2008, the Unified Building Law, law 119/2008, was ratified, and among its articles two new agencies were to be established. The first was the Supreme Council for Urban Planning and Development (SCUPD), chaired by the Prime Minister and including the ministers of defense, investment, and housing.

SCUPD would "specialise in the adoption of policies for urban planning and development and inter-ministerial coordination" (article 3). The new law also stipulated the establishment of a new fund to repair and rebuild housing in danger of collapse through grants and zero-interest loans for the poor (article 97). But the government waited until the Duweiqa disaster in September of the same year to establish these new agencies, issuing two Presidential decrees, 298/2008 and 305/2008, in October: the first establishing the SCUPD, and the second creating the Informal Settlements Development Facility (ISDF) as a cabinet entity, though an agency quite different from the one described in the law.

In August 2012, with the formation of president Mohamed Morsi’s government, the water and waste-water utilities portfolio accounting for about half of the Ministry of Housing, Utilities and Urban Development's budget, was separated without explanation, to form the ministry of Water and Waste-Water Utilities. The new ministry lasted less than a year until July 2013, when Adly Mansour’s first government dissolved it and re-assigned its portfolio to the Ministry of Housing, also without explanation.

In May 2014, interim president Adly Mansour issued the Social Housing Law, law 33/2014, which stipulated the establishment of a Social Housing Fund headed by the Minister of Housing, to take over the financing, management and creation of housing units for the social housing program (article 8). This was despite the existence of another fund, the Guarantee and Subsidy Fund, also affiliated to the Ministry of Housing, which "coordinates with government agencies to build affordable housing" (presidential decree 4/2003). 

Between 44 percent and two thirds of Egyptians are deprived of secure tenure, and more than half deprived of proper sanitation.

A month later when president Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s first government was formed in June 2014, the Ministry of State for Urban Renewal and Informal Settlements (MURIS) was unexpectedly created by cobbling together the ISDF, until then affiliated to the cabinet, with the solid waste management portfolio, which had been part of the Ministry of Environment.

Was this an initiative to apply the constitution, as one of the responsibilities of the new minister was an exact copy of constitutional article 78 on the right to housing (prime ministerial decree 1252/2014); or was it a response to the demands of the "Who Loves Egypt for Informal Housing Development" campaign during the presidential elections? We will never know.

In September 2015, with the recent cabinet reshuffle, MURIS was dissolved without explanation, and the ISDF transferred to the Ministry of Housing.

Last October, a source in the Ministry of Planning stated that the government is preparing a new Unified Planning Law. Among its provisions would be the establishment of the Supreme Council for Planning and Development, to replace the Supreme Council for Urban Planning and Development set up only seven years ago—with the aim of "ending conflict and duplication in the legislative framework for sectoral planning, spatial planning and state land use".

A framework for just urban development, or continued failure

The proportion of Egyptians deprived of adequate housing is staggering. Anywhere between 44 percent and two thirds of Egyptians are deprived of secure tenure, exposing them to the risk of eviction or displacement (there is very little data on tenure). More than half of Egyptians are deprived of proper sanitation, which exposes them to health problems and the risk of their homes collapsing due to rising ground-water table.

More than 2.3 million households are not connected to a safe water source (no tap at home), forcing undue labour on family members, including women and children, to bring water. More than 1.3 million families live in severely crowded conditions (one or two-room housing), a large proportion of them using shared bathrooms. Between 800,000 and 1.6 million families live in condemned buildings, with collapses resulting in the deaths of 200 people and the displacement of more than 800 families each year.

These are all symptoms; the reason is the deregulated housing market. The sharp increase in house prices—owned or rental—has far outstripped any increase in wages, which has forced a significant number of Egyptians to resort to inadequate housing. And so any program that aims to upgrade so-called 'ashwaeyat must address both the deprivations outlined above as well as their root causes. And for such an integrated program to work, it should be given an administrative framework that is competent, transparent, and has the democratic participation of the communities whose living conditions it aims to improve. However, these two preconditions have yet to materialise.

First published in Arabic on Al Shorouk on 29 October 2015. Translated by Mariam Ali.

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