Noura Hassan's tiny top-floor flat in the central Cairo neighborhood of Bulaq contains barely any furniture; instead, her belongings have been packed into dozen of cardboard boxes.
In the bedroom, rolled carpets and bed slats lean against the walls, while a sheet laid on the tiled floor marks the place where Noura and husband have been sleeping for the past few weeks.
Stepping out of the front door of the two-storey building where the 56-year-old mother-of-two lives, the rubble from the demolitions of other buildings in the street is visible; her building is scheduled to meet the same fate in a matter of days.
Hassan is one of thousands of residents of a tiny section of central Cairo who have for decades fought off efforts by the government to demolish their homes, to make way for redevelopment.
The conflict in the Maspero Triangle, where almost 80 percent of properties have had their residents evicted, reveals the underside to the government's attempts to modernise the Nile-adjacent area, which officials say is the most highly-valued land in the capital.
"I was born here; I have lived here all my life and my grandfathers had lived here," Hassan said.
"How do they [authorities] want me to leave now? I don't have money or anywhere to move out to," she added as she showed Ahram Online around her building.
Her building is cut off from the street by a mound of debris from a couple of buildings that have been partially torn down, while a demolition crane is parked at the entrance to the street. A big letter X spray painted by clearance teams on the door indicates the building’s fate.
The rest of the lower-income area remains partially inhabited, but the main street where Hassan lives has been almost emptied, because it is the first due to come down.
A mound of rubble from a couple of buildings that have been partially torn down at Maspero Triangle area, Cairo, Egypt (Photo: Ayat Al-Tawy)
Strategically located in the heart of Cairo, off the Corniche promenade alongside the Nile, Maspero is a triangle-shaped area made up of run-down houses and shabby low-rise buildings. It neighbours a major five-star hotel, the state television and radio complex, and the foreign ministry headquarters. The district's streets vary from large well-mapped thoroughfares to narrow alleyways.
Hassan's family is among some 850 of a total of around 4,500 households in the area who have opted to return after the development is complete. But she has yet to receive a EGP 40,000 (approx. $2,270) temporary housing allowance offered by the government to offset the three-year period in which the redevelopment is due to take place.
Less than one hundred of those who submitted applications requesting to be resettled in the area have received the temporary housing payment, said Ahmed Hassan, a member of a committee representing residents with officials.
Most of the residents in the working-class area inherited the right to rent their flats and shops, and continued to live in them with open-ended contracts under an old property law that gives families secure long-term tenancy and keeps the rents at a prices fixed decades ago, many as low as EGP 10 to 20 a month (approx. $0.50 to $1).
Such tenancy contracts can be legally passed down to heirs, and typically cannot be terminated without a significant sum of compensation paid to the tenant.
The catch is that hard-up residents who opt to return to the area will have to pay to swap their houses for new apartments in the same area which will not fall under the old rent laws: that means either hundreds of pounds in monthly rents, or mortgage installments that will be way beyond their means.
The rest of the area's long-time residents have accepted compensation, and others were offered alternative housing.
Some residents interviewed say the government has yet to finalise assessment of their houses or look at appeals by families who say their properties have been under-valued.
Despite the appeals, the authorities have continued to issue renewed deadlines for evictions, and say that the area will be entirely cleared by the end of March.
Rooftops at Maspero Triangle area as the Hilton Ramses Hotel can be seen in the background, Cairo,
Egypt, March 5, 2018 (Photo: Ayat Al-Tawy)
Livelihoods under threat
Among those holdouts who refuse to leave are most of the neighbourhood’s shopkeepers, who hold inherited, long-term tenancy contracts under similar rules to that of residents.
The government announced compensation for some 900 shops in the area only two weeks ago, although a payment scheme for homes was made public almost a year ago. Unlike residents, shopkeepers are offered no alternative, but must depart in return for what they see as meager financial compensation.
"I won’t find any [shop] elsewhere with the money they will give me. I would leave my living here in the centre [of the city], and then where should I go?" Mohamed Khamees, a mechanic in his 40s, wondered.
"Okay, we can leave, but give us alternative shops, anywhere," he said.
Khamees and many other shopkeepers say the EGP 5,000 pounds (approx. $280) offered by the government per square metre is a fraction of the original value of their properties and is nowhere near enough for them to buy a shop in an outlying area of the city, let alone in downtown.
In addition to the compensation, shopkeepers will also be given EGP 80,000 (approx. $4,500) as a moving allowance.
According to local real estate agents contacted by Ahram Online, the average prices in the Triangle are estimated at EGP 60-100,000 (approx. $3,400-$5,600) per square metre.
But the position of those business owners is unlikely to change in the neighbourhood’s final days.
The head of the Boulaq Abul Ela municipal district, Ibrahim Abdel Hady, told Ahram Online the evaluation is final and residents have no choice but to accept it.
Maspero Triangle area in Bulaq Abul Ela neighbourhood, Cairo, Egypt, March 5, 2018 (Photo: Ayat Al-Tawy)
Those who have lived in the Triangle for generations say the area has been a good home and offered a sense of community, but had also been neglected by the state.
Most of the area's working-class residents, around 2,900 families, have accepted a one-time compensation in return for their properties, some EGP 100,000 per room (approx. $5,600).
The majority of the apartments in the area are occupied by more than one family, each living in a single room, sharing a bathroom and a kitchen. Others have been relocated to a newly opened housing complex in Al-Mokattam district, east of Cairo, and around 20km away from the original district.
Around 50 acres of the Maspero Triangle area is scheduled to be demolished and replaced with commercial high rises, residential and office spaces, and deluxe hotels overlooking the Nile.
The bulk of land is owned by big firms, including Saudi and Emirati companies and the Maspero Urban Development Company (a subsidiary of the Investment Ministry), while around a third is owned by some 200 individuals, according to recently-resigned deputy housing ministry Ahmed Darwish.
"The state's role [in the project] is only meant to preserve citizen's rights and to avoid leaving investors with frozen assets," a senior housing ministry official, who asked not to be named, said.
He added that the ramshackle buildings in the area are deemed unsafe, necessitating quick intervention from the state.
The resulting development will be financed and carried out by private developers; the government’s EGP 4 billion scheme ($227 million) extends to outlining a development master plan for investors to comply with, for removing the residents, and constructing a small residential complex to which a small number of original residents will return.
The housing ministry will acquire part of each owner's land and earmark it for a residential complex on 20 percent of the project's area, where 900 residential units will be built for the original residents.
While some see the government's plans as unfairly targeting the vulnerable underclass to benefit developers, officials have another view.
"This is land owned by investors. The state will give everyone their right," Ibrahim Abdel Hady said.
Others are sceptical about the government promises they will be resettled in the area after new houses are built, fearing gentrification.
"There will be registered contracts. The government won't deceive them," Abdel Hady said.
Cafes at Maspero Triangle area, Cairo, Egypt (Photo: Ayat Al-Tawy)
New homes on the outskirts of the city
Around 400 families from Maspero have been relocated some 20km away, and are now living in 65-square metre homes in six-storey blocks of flats in Al-Mokattam.
Now home to over 10,000 families to date, the Tahya Misr residential complex (also known as Al-Asmarat) is an ambitious EGP 2 billion (approx. $114 million) project to rehouse slumdwellers in Cairo. It was opened by President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi two years ago, and takes its name from his Tahya Misr (Long Live Egypt) slogan. When complete, the complex will feature 18,000 flats.
But many are not so enthusiastic about their new life in Al-Asmarat, and say the quality of living conditions in the sprawling compound, with its broad paved streets and well-planned buildings, do not make up for the communities they left behind.
“There [in Maspero] we had a community, we had jobs near our homes, we paid nothing to live at our homes,” said 49-year-old Saeed, who moved to Asmarat five months ago.
He is living in his new two-bedroom flat rent-free for a year; then he is supposed to pay EGP 300 in monthly rental for 30 years, after which he will own the flat.
“Here, I can’t find a job, I don’t know my neighbours, and I have to wait for the bus sometimes for an hour to go out [of the complex]," he said, as he showed Ahram Online around his flat.
Saeed's story is repeated across Al-Asmarat by others who were moved from informal housing in Cairo, including from irregularly built areas in Doueyka, Dar El-Salam and Sayeda Zeinab.
Saeed at his flat in Tahiya Misr compound (Known as Al-Asmarat) in Al-Mokattam district, Cairo, Egypt (Photo: Ayat Al-Tawy)
Saeed, and many others in the complex, complains of having to commute to downtown Cairo almost daily either to work or maintain a social life, which incurs a significant financial burden.
No shops have yet opened inside Al-Asmarat except for a several formal outlets belonging to the army, the interior minister and the investment ministry's Al-Ahram consumer complexes (Al-Ahram Markets). They all offer basic commodities and close in late afternoon.
Residents say they have to walk a long distance or wait for the public bus to go to the markets outside the complex to get everything they need.
The complex also has around 400 yet-to-open shops; tenancies are scheduled to be put up for public auction in two months under a lease scheme, with a reduced one-time payment upon delivery, Al-Asmarat district head Hassan El-Ghandour told Ahram Online.
But hard-up residents say they won't be able to afford the units.
Tahiya Misr compound (Known as Al-Asmarat) in Al-Mokattam district, Cairo, Egypt (Photo: Ayat Al-Tawy)
The local authority also aims to impose order in the compound. The only allowed mode of transportation inside the complex is public buses. No microbuses or tuk-tuks, which residents once exclusively relied on, are permitted to enter.
Informal efforts to find a living by some individuals have not been welcomed. The compound security has cracked down on attempts by some residents to sell goods through their flats or at public spaces inside the compound.
Ghandour said four units have been withdrawn from their owners for doing so, and a candyfloss seller seen wandering a street in Al-Asmarat told Ahram Online with a laugh that he has been detained three times by the municipal officials for doing so.
Unlike residents from Maspero Triangle, other Al-Asmarat residents who came from informal Cairo neighbourhoods -- where building is technically illegal -- do not get a year’s rent-free tenancy in the complex, and must immediately pay the monthly rent of EGP 300 for their flats. In addition they will remain tenants, whereas the former Maspero Triangle residents will own their flats after making rent payments for 30 years.
All the residents interviewed by Ahram Online said they couldn’t afford rent and utility bills, and most of them have abstained from paying, but fear a build-up of debts or the loss of their units.
Ahmed, 29, moved to the complex from a crumbling slum in the medieval district of Sayeda Zeinab.
"Life here is clean and good, but I was happier there,” he said.
Watch also: Residents of Maspero Triangle: We will not move without being compensated
Passageways between buildings at Tahiya Misr compound (Known as Al-Asmarat) in Al-Mokattam district, Cairo, Egypt (Photo: Ayat Al-Tawy)