Egyptian project seeks to revolutionise urban slums

Some estimates put the number of slum dwellers nationwide at 18 million.
Sunday 25/03/2018
Tal al-Aqarib, a southern Cairo slum now being  demolished and reconstructed.     (The Head of the Engineering Section of the Egyptian Army)
A new life. Tal al-Aqarib, a southern Cairo slum now being demolished and reconstructed. (The Head of the Engineering Section of the Egyptian Army)

CAIRO - Life in the southern Cairo area of Tal al-Aqarib — Arabic for “Scorpions’ Hill” — will never be the same. Beautiful modern homes are being constructed to replace the corrugated metal shacks people who lived in the 2.5-hectare slum used as housing for decades.

Nearly 4,000 people lived in the area before they were removed, provided with alternative temporary housing and the slum razed to make way for the new homes.

These residences are turning the area into a compound that will include almost everything its long-time residents will need when they return in May.

Tal al-Aqarib is one of dozens of slums that have either been demolished or upgraded as the government seeks to clear all such blighted areas nationwide. Egypt is allocating billions of pounds to eradicate the slums.

“There are too many slums in our country and their presence has been a big problem to all governments,” said Sameh al-Alayli, a professor of urban planning at Cairo University. “The extent of work done now shows that the current administration is taking the issue of slum eradication very seriously.”

There are hundreds of slums across Egypt; most of them are dangerous to live in and fail to provide residents with basic necessities. Most of the slums are concentrated in Cairo, Alexandria and the Suez Canal City of Port Said.

There are 289 slums in Cairo, reported the Slum Development Fund, the section of the Housing Ministry responsible for them. Some estimates put the number of slum dwellers nationwide at 18 million.

Surrounded by waste, cut off from services and suffering extreme poverty, slum dwellers have dreamt of living in modern homes that provide basic amenities.

The precarious nature of slum life was tragically demonstrated in September 2008 when a rockslide buried homes in the sprawling southern Cairo slum of Manshiet Nasser. Dozens of people were killed and many others trapped for days. This is the type of tragedy Egypt’s national slum eradication project hopes to end.

Slum residents have been offered housing in safer areas. Apartments offered to slum residents within the project are usually fully furnished and free.

However, the project is not without its detractors, including some who would rather remain in the slums than be relocated far away.

“I have to spend more money now to get to and from work every day,” said Ali Abuleish, a 35-year-old Cairo restaurant worker who was recently moved from Manshiet Nasser to al-Asmarat, a new urban community kilometres away. “This, of course, costs me more money.”

The Slum Development Fund has approximately $1 billion in its coffers, fund Executive Director Khaled Sadek said.

“We can see an end to the presence of the slums very soon,” he said.

Some reports said that goal could be reached by the end of this year, although many say that timeframe is unrealistic.

Slums formed in Egyptian cities over the last four decades with massive migration from rural areas, especially the southern provinces to Cairo and the coastal cities. Many of those who migrated from underdeveloped areas found it hard to keep up with the high cost of housing in the cities, which was why they lived in makeshift homes.

“This is why it is necessary to address the root causes of the disease, not its symptoms,” Alayli said. “The slums are only the expression of a bigger problem that is the lack of development in some parts of Egypt.”

Egypt’s economic plan has focused on the equal distribution of development among the nation’s provinces. Development projects, especially industrial ones, have been constructed in southern Egypt, seeking to catch up with decades’ worth of development concentrated in Cairo and the coastal cities.

“These projects will encourage workers in these provinces to stay because there are opportunities there,” Alayli said.

One of the results of fair distribution of development has been migrants leaving Cairo and coastal cities for developing areas in southern Egypt and the Nile Delta. This is helping lower the price of housing in Egypt’s big cities, with the hope that slum-dwellers will be able to afford better living conditions as a result.

Apart from offering marginalised citizens safe and clean housing, the slum eradication project gives work to residents, especially construction workers. Most of the money spent on the project comes from ordinary Egyptians who contribute to the national “Long Live Egypt Fund,” which was begun by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in 2014.

In Tal al-Aqarib, thousands of people have benefited from the fund. Alayli’s fund has spent $17 million on new home construction to replace makeshift shacks. There will also be commercial shops, green spaces and other facilities.

The residents of the slum agreed with the fund to change the area’s name. One of the suggested names is “Sayeda Zeinab Garden.” Sayeda Zeinab is the historical district where the slum is located.

“This is not merely a new name but an expression of a new life,” said Sayed al-Assuiti, a 40-year-old construction worker who arrived in Tal al-Aqarib 20 years ago and has been living there since. “We can now raise our children in a clean environment and build on what we already have.”