It’s a quiet afternoon in Sheikh Mohamed El-Qassem Street in central Cairo; the green doors of the modest houses are mostly locked and the residents out at work.
On the street corner, a few women sit together, catching up on the latest gossip and exchanging smiles with passers-by.
Between the residents’ houses, lie the untouched ruins of buildings that have collapsed due to neglect.
A woman walk down Sheikh Mohamed El-Qassem’s alley in Cairo's Maspero triangle, where over the past few years several buildings have collapsed (Photo: Randa Ali)
“These houses collapsed in 2008. There were children who left for school and came back to find that their houses were gone,” Mahmoud Shaaban, a member of the Maspero Association to Defend the Land and the Right for Housing, told Ahram Online.
Sheikh Mohamed El-Qassem Street is located inside the impoverished area known as the Maspero Triangle, part of Boulaq in central Cairo.
According to a research conducted by Madd platform, an independent institution that works on issues related to urban development, the triangle stands on 74 feddans (77 acres) of land and is home to at least 18,000 residents.
The triangle occupies a central location overlooking the Nile Corniche -- and just metres away from luxury developments that include luxury shopping malls and five-star hotels.
Last summer, families who live in the triangle were promised new houses in the neighbourhood by the government if they vacated and demolished their houses. The land would then be turned over to investors from Egypt and the Gulf, who own it.
“We were almost there until [the protests leading to president Mohamed Morsi’s ouster on] 30 June happened. Our meeting was scheduled for 2 July and we were ready to celebrate,” said Sayed Labi, a resident of the triangle.
Labi explained that, with the political turmoil that followed Morsi’s ouster, the families lost contact with the government.
According to locals, the dispute over the land goes back several decades.
“After Nasser’s 1952 revolution and the nationalisation of some land owned by foreigners, some owners used a legal procedure to avoid having their lands taken by the government. They would grant the land to their servants through endowment,” said Labi.
The endowment dictates that the interest from the land would go to the landowner’s servants for 20 years. The descendants of these servants are today's residents of the triangle. Many of the families have been living on the land since well before Nasser's time.
But by the 1970s, says Labi, the endowment had expired and the original landowner’s servants sold part of the land to Saudi and Kuwaiti companies for a fortune.
“Between the 1970s and the 1980s, these companies manipulated the residents and fooled them into making contracts that gave them a monopoly over the land,” said Labi, adding that the two Gulf companies were joined in 2005 by the Company for Developing the Maspero Triangle, a joint-stock Egyptian company including the Egyptian National Bank and the Cairo governorate, and they too started to take over much of the land in the triangle.
Failing to provide a proof of ownership, the triangle's residents continued to face threats of eviction.
A gradual eviction
According to Shaaban, the building collapses have also pushed locals to leave the area.
He claims that owners of the land, along with the governorate, have imposed a ban on the restoration of houses in the triangle, and with an inability to prove ownership over the land, rebuilding is not an option.
“It’s like a gradual eviction. They want to see the whole area collapsing,” added Shaaban.
There were initial proposals by the government to move the locals to new developments on the outskirts of Cairo such as Al-Nahda or 6 October city, an option that the majority of residents turned down, citing economic reasons and the fact that almost 76 percent of residents work in the local area neighbourhood.
“There are people whose families have been living here for 400 years. Their houses are older than those companies asking us about our relationship with the land,” Shaaban, who is also a resident of the triangle, told Ahram Online.
According to Madd, 82 percent of the residents were born in the triangle.
Labi says that a few months ago, the Maspero company began sending letters to the residents, threatening them with eviction if they fail to provide proof of ownership.
“Most people live here without papers. They’re all relatives. Who would ask their family members for contracts?” said Labi, adding that after conducting several meetings residents of the triangle agreed not to respond to the threat, to avoid confrontation.
Chance for compromise
At this point the ideal solution is the one suggested by the Urban Planning Authority, says Shaaban.
The proposal, made in 2013, was to build 64 high-rise towers to accommodate the current residents, while the rest of the land would be cleared for the investors.
However, this proposal has not yet been endorsed by the investors, according to General Hani Shineishin, director of housing in the Cairo governorate.
“The current value of the land is really low and the investors are not benefiting from it because it is occupied by residents. Our plan is to remove all of this and build towers for the people, and this would add to the value of the land,” he explained, stressing that the proposal is frozen as investors and owners remain reluctant to give up part of the land.
Labi estimates that land a square metre in the triangle is worth around a hefty LE56,000 ($8,000).
In the adjacent area of Ramlet Boulaq, tensions between investors who erected fancy high rise complexes such as Nile Towers and poor long-term residents have led to violent confrontations in recent years.
Shineishin said that the governorate will keep trying to meet again with the investors, or to find a mediator that can convince the investors to reconsider the authority’s proposal.
Ahmed Zaazaa, an architect and member of Madd, said that the proposal allots seven feddans for the towers, and this allotment is unworkable.
Children walk down one of the alley's in Cairo's Maspero Triangle (Photo: Randa Ali)
“After research carried out by Madd, we came to the conclusion that there is no way such project will be established on less than nine feddans, and it would still not house everyone,” he said at a presentation on the issue in February.
The institution recently launched the Maspero Parallel Participatory Project to work on the issue, and to ensure that residents are included in any plan made by either the government or investors.
“We’re trying to see if we can introduce an economic project that the investors will benefit from, while also help preserving the neighbourhood,” explained Zaazaa.
One initial suggestion is to compensate investors by providing them with alternative pieces of land. Zaazaa says that there is unused land in the area surrounding the triangle which could be used for this purpose.
“But such proposal will need the government to play a principal role. It will make our stance much stronger,” he said.
Madd’s project is also concerned with the historic aspect of the neighbourhood, saying that the district dates back to the fourteenth century.
“Fifty percent of the buildings in the triangle were built between 1890 and 1920 while another 39 percent were built between 1930 and 1949,” said Zaazaa, who suggested that the issue could set a precedent for clearing other areas of historical importance in the city.
One suggestion Madd is working on involves celebrating the area’s heritage.
“In Europe you always find that the older neighbourhoods are the most appealing to tourists. This is what we’re suggesting -- the merging of an old neighbourhood in the middle of the modern city,” he said adding that such ideas had already succeeded in the Arab world in places like Damascus and Halab.
Residents of the Maspero triangle walk pass vegetable vendors in the neighbourhood (Photo: Randa Ali)
Unwilling to leave
“I was born here at 36 Mohamed Qassem Street. My building has collapsed, but it is still my address. I want to die here,” said 70-year-old Mohamed Baelo.
Baelo says he appreciates the efforts to save his neighbourhood, but he is not optimistic.
“This is a lost cause; you see these high buildings over there where the Ahly bank is? In the past no one dared to touch these lands, but then one day they were sold for billions,” he said.
Unlike Baelo, 30-year-old Labi is determined to keep on fighting to make sure his people remain on their land.
“This is our life. You’re talking about our souls. You can come kill us and drive tanks over us, but we will not leave,” he said.