This is a warning of an impending urban disaster in Cairo if we fail to stop what is happening to our city. In this column last week, I appealed to Governor of Cairo Atef Abdel-Hamid to halt the deterioration in our urban services and utilities that are being strangulated by overcrowding.
I spoke of how the long-standing ordinance banning construction had lapsed at the end of January, yet was never renewed or extended for some mysterious reason. (Some say there is nothing mysterious about it, but I prefer to presume innocence over levelling charges of corruption until proof emerges to cause me to do otherwise.
A ban on new construction had applied to many districts in Cairo, safeguarding some of them (such as Maadi) from the collapse of urban infrastructure which was not designed to sustain the mounting pressures caused by the increasing numbers of inhabitants in these districts.
As I pointed out last week, the reasons why the ordinance was enacted to begin with still persist. In fact, the conditions have probably grown worse given that Cairo’s infrastructure has undergone little noteworthy improvement.
One would have thought, as I did, that the ordinance would be extended until the infrastructure was upgraded to accommodate the growing population, because otherwise some of our capital’s neighbourhoods will become no different from sprawling slums.
Ahmed Hussein Al-Shawadfi, a former deputy minister, wrote to me the following: “You remind me of the late Ahmed Bahaaeddin who, despite his primary interest in political affairs, often devoted attention to environmental and urban issues. Such matters are no less important than politics.
In fact, you put your finger on a most crucial political issue. The true purpose of politics should be to strive to improve the quality of life of the people. Is there anything that can affect the quality of life more than the quality of public services and utilities? Unfortunately, no one seems to appreciate this.
Moreover, the law and ordinances that were meant to safeguard what remains of our services and utilities are falling by the wayside.”
Commenting on last week’s article on his Facebook page, Mohamed Hassan, a resident of Maadi, wrote: “What we are seeing is the systematic destruction of Cairo’s neighbourhoods and the victory of corruption and ignorance over the public welfare.
I believe that the source of the problem that Mohamed Salmawy discussed, namely the failure to renew the construction ban ordinance in Maadi due to the inability of the infrastructure to sustain more apartment blocks and the unprecedented deterioration in utilities, traffic and streets, resides in the fact that some corrupt officials, as a favour to a number of building contractors, had not notified the governor of the need to renew the ordinance.”
Are our municipal councils and their unqualified leaders set upon ruining the country by undermining every advance towards progress in order to serve the few? How often have I and many others cautioned that the current infrastructure is unable to cope with the buildings that already exist? Are certain opportunists to be granted privileges so that we can witness the decay of a district that is home to more than two million people?
Why was the ordinance abandoned? Was it a mistake? If so, should not the official responsible be brought to account? On the other hand, if the ordinance was right, then why was it not extended? Governorate and municipal authorities hold the answers to such questions.
Here is another question for them: how can we try to invite foreign direct investment and, at the same time, turn the residential quarters that house the employees of foreign firms into areas unfit for human habitation?
I also received the following letter from Dr Medhat Al-Siftawi: “I am at a loss to understand what is happening in this country. The president is working to establish an administrative capital using the most modern methods and concepts for urban planning and design.
Meanwhile, the rest of the government agencies are doing all in their power to erode the condition of Cairo which was once one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
How can the president fight corruption when other government agencies feed corruption to benefit those who possess money and influence?
How are law enforcement officials supposed to arrest a governor here or a deputy governor there in the fight against corruption when authorities in a third governorate facilitate corruption and make it possible for the corrupt to break construction laws by failing to extend the ordinance banning construction in neighbourhoods that are unable to cope with more high-rises?
It is as though those authorities told the corrupt construction contractors, ‘Feel free to wreak your corruption. The ban is gone. You can do as you please in order to aggravate the crises in those already overcrowded neighbourhoods. No one will stop you.’ Has no one learned a thing from the cases of the governor of Menoufiya or the deputy governor of Alexandria?”
“Why do you address your appeal to the governor?” Dr Olfat Abdel-Meguid, an urban planning expert, asked me. “Isn’t the governorate the source of the ailment? Was it not the governorate bureaucrats who issued the construction ban ordinance and then made the mistake of failing to extend it despite the fact that the existing infrastructure is unable to cope with more buildings? How can you expect them to right what they wronged? I can tell you right now that the governor will do nothing and that the rest of the governorate bureaucrats will pretend that they hear and see nothing, and act as though the people in this governorate are not groaning under the strains of poor urban infrastructure.
The governorate, which is presumably responsible for remedying this state of affairs, has lifted the construction ban, only to augment the suffering of the people and intensify their anger against the governorate authorities and the entire government. Do not write to the governor, Sir. Look for a more effective way.”
For the second time I address an appeal to Governor of Cairo Atef Abdel-Hamid to reconsider this matter and to discipline those responsible for failing to extend the construction ban ordinance, thereby unleashing unrestrained construction activities that threaten certain urban disaster.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly