In Egypt, ambitious redevelopment projects are forcing thousands of residents from their homes

In Egypt, ambitious redevelopment projects are forcing thousands of residents from their homes

After labelling their neighbourhood a “slum”, the government evicted the residents of the so-called “Maspero Triangle”, located two kilometres from Tahrir Square in the Boulaq district, to make way for luxury housing developments aimed at more affluent residents.

(Jamal Boukhari)

In January 2022, the lives of Sara Ahmed and her family were turned upside down when authorities informed them and hundreds of thousands of other residents of the 6th and 7th districts of Cairo’s Nasr City neighbourhood that their homes were going to be demolished to make way for luxury housing developments. The family of seven suddenly found themselves facing the prospect of losing their only home, located in the 6th district. While the government justified its actions on the grounds that the buildings were unsafe due to unsuitable living conditions, residents see other motives behind the decision.

The two districts in Cairo’s east are close to the road that leads to Egypt’s new capital city, located about 60 km from the megalopolis, which Egyptian president al-Sisi is building as the future seat of his government. Work on a monorail with an estimated price tag of €2 billion and a new highway is already underway. While it is impossible to know the real reason behind the decision to demolish buildings in the two districts, rumours are rife on social media.

Some believe the state wants to build luxury housing complexes near the road to the new capital, while others see the project as an attempt to rebrand the whole area. Yet the two districts the authorities are demolishing in Cairo and other cities while forcibly relocating their residents to small flats built by the state, have never been classified as ‘slums’. “The two districts are well organised. The buildings are strong and mostly built in the 1970s,” Sara, a 28-year-old accountant, tells Equal Times.

The demolition notice hit Sara’s father particularly hard. “He didn’t say a word for a whole week. He refused to eat. The smile disappeared from his face,” Sara says. “We bought this flat eight years ago with the money my father saved working in Saudi Arabia for ten years. We were barely able to enjoy our new flat,” she laments, gazing at the building where their flat is located.

A lack of transparency

Residents of the two districts created the hashtag “#Arfod-Ezalet al-Hai-Alsadith-walsabe” (“I refuse the demolition of the 6th and 7th districts”) on social media to make their voices heard by the authorities. Some residents are begging President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to intervene to prevent their eviction, while others have used the hashtag to share memories of the neighbourhoods where they were born. In a video of a meeting between residents of the 6th district and the municipality, a father describes the panic that had overtaken his family since the decision was announced. “The government will have to demolish the house over my head,” he said.

In addition, residents have organised themselves into groups to file complaints with the Council of State and meet with members of parliament. “There is no logical reason for demolishing the two districts and there has been no transparency in this decision,” Omnia Khalil, Egyptian architecture researcher with the NGO 10 Toba, tells Equal Times. “The government had already demolished some buildings in the area and driven out their inhabitants to build the monorail. No one can say ‘no’ to this policy of dispossession and demolition,” she adds. The government has remained unresponsive to protests, ignoring the victims of its decisions and hasn’t bothered to provide justification for them.

“The al-Sisi regime has become accustomed to running the country like military barracks. It’s the commanding officer and everyone else has to obey,” Ammar Ali Hassan, a former professor of social policy at Helwan University in Cairo, tells Equal Times.

The state has made use of a law governing the expropriation of real estate for public benefit, which allows it to confiscate any public or private property in order to carry out projects considered useful for the common good, in exchange for financial compensation. Although the law dates back to 1990, al-Sisi’s government has amended it several times in recent years to expand authorities’ power to seize properties. Any building can now be expropriated for purposes including the improvement of public services such as transport, water, energy and irrigation, as well as for the construction of highways, squares, new residential areas, bridges and roads. According to Egyptian lawyers, the compensation offered by the state in the event of expropriation is extremely low compared to the properties’ real market value.

“This law deprives people of a sense of security in their own homes. The state’s ongoing dispossession of private houses and buildings is unprecedented in Egypt’s modern history,” adds Khalil.

The law has also become a weapon for the Egyptian leader’s outsize ambitions as he seeks to leave his personal mark on the country. “Hundreds of families have already been forced to leave their homes in eastern Cairo to make way for projects such as the construction of highways and bridges to facilitate access to the new capital,” says Khalil.

Mass evictions

Since President al-Sisi came to power, the regime has steadily been seizing businesses, farmland, private homes and properties in both poor and wealthy neighbourhoods, and even at cultural and historical sites across the country, always providing different justifications.

In addition to using the law on expropriation for public benefit, in 2016 President al-Sisi launched a wide-ranging crackdown of illegal settlements in Cairo and other major cities. Residents who are unable to regularise their property are fined or forced to move to other public housing complexes in small flats, mostly built on the outskirts of the city or in the desert. Many, however, find themselves with nowhere to go.

This campaign has resulted in the eviction of hundreds of thousands of families, most of whose properties were later recovered by the state. According to official figures published in August 2021, the state had already “eliminated” 46 slums in Cairo, while another 14 are currently in the process of demolition. In February 2022, the Cairo Governorate announced that it had demolished three more slums near the city centre. The neighbourhood’s residents have protested and brought legal actions, mostly to no avail.

“Most of the land recovered from the demolition of slums in Cairo is located in very strategic areas, such as the Maspiro Triangle and Majra al-Ayoun, a few kilometres from Tahrir Square in the city centre, as well as Nazlet El-Semman near the pyramids,” explains Professor Hassan.

The state does not intend to carry out development projects in these neighbourhoods; otherwise it would develop them to benefit their inhabitants.”

While replacing slums with modern housing complexes is a means for the state to earn money, it also allows it to move wealthier residents to strategic locations. “The state is working to redesign the relationships between people in Cairo through the construction of a series of well-segregated housing complexes, where everyone lives in isolation from one another,” adds Hassan.

The Egyptian government has another weapon for seizing land in strategically important areas. Established in February 2016, the State Land Reclamation Committee is responsible for enforcing its rights to large plots of land and demolishing houses built on land considered state-owned. Over the past six years, thousands of families and residents, especially on the Nile islands, have been evicted or face eviction.

Land for the army too

The Egyptian army is also profiting from this policy of dispossession that leaves citizens feeling threatened in their own homes. By decree, President al-Sisi has granted the army 36 Nile islands and one marine island, despite the fact that some of these islands, such as al-Qursaya, are inhabited by farmers and fishermen. The islands’ inhabitants have no doubt that the decision will be implemented, as the army never gives up geographically important sites offered by the regime.

Residents of the 36 islands worry that they will face the same fate as the 90,000 inhabitants of al-Warraq island, who have been trying since 2017 to block attempts at forced eviction. But they know that any attempt to defend their homes and properties will come with a price: 35 of the island’s citizens are currently serving prison sentences of between five and 25 years, accused of clashing with the police who tried to drive them off the island.

This article has been translated from French by Brandon Johnson