Happy endings are hard to find for Egypt's homeless

Sherif Tarek , Thursday 16 Jun 2011

With housing problems in Egypt rising to the fore, the sit-in in Maspero by those made homeless highlights the continued neglect and corruption that plagues the country's most unfortunate

Hundreds of homeless people set up tents in Maspero (Photo: Mai Shaheen)

The sit-in staged by hundreds of homeless people in Maspero, Cairo seems to be nowhere near a happy ending, with no positive response coming from the government concerning their urgent but basic demands, and the protesters running out of patience and apparently turning more aggressive a day after another.

On Thursday morning, a brawl erupted between sit-in protesters and drivers passing by, causing the street to once again be blocked. When Cairo Governor Abdel Kawi Khalifa recently announced that none of the demonstrators would be granted residential units, further altercations in front of the state TV building were highly expected.

Around a fortnight ago the beleaguered homeless families took to the streets to protest against the authorities for being “passive” and “neglectful” while dealing with their ordeal, saying they keep stalling and have taken no serious steps to improve their unenviable status.

The destitute protesters used to be tenants in the cities of El-Nahda and El-Salam before the landlords kicked them out in the wake of the January 25 Revolution, leaving over ‎‎1,300 families without accommodation.

The first reaction by the interim government came in the form of a ‎makeshift camp allocated for those made homeless, supposedly until the Cairo governorate's office grants them new dwellings in the near future.

For several months the families roughed it out in the tent compound, in which conditions were “too inhumane” for them to remain any longer.

“The camp is now empty. We are all here to see how this is going to end,” a man in the Maspero sit-in told Ahram Online. “The heat was unbearable there; you wouldn’t be able to touch the metal rod of the tent because of the high temperature.

“There was no electricity and we had [untreated] sewage running beneath us. We have no good life, nor good food,” said the desperate man while holding a small piece of dry bread in his hand as a testament to his suffering.

The sit-in, which started right after Copts had ended theirs in the same location, comprises tens of medium-sized tents set up on both sides of the street. Quite a few wretched middle-aged women dressed all in black sit on the pavement, occasionally lamenting their heartbreaking misery.

“May God bless your soul [Anwar] Sadat!” shouted a woman last Saturday – when the road was blocked by the protesters for many hours following the drowning in the Nile of a male protester – out of her belief that the former El-Nahda and El-Salam inhabitants would have been better off during the era of the late president.

In what might have been a suicide attempt, another woman threw herself in front of a moving microbus when the road re-opened, following a compromise deal between the protesters and the police. After she was carried away by her fellow demonstrators, she kept wailing and slapping her face hysterically as others tried in vain to calm her down.

The drowned man is said to ‎have tripped and fallen into the Nile while washing his shirt. He resorted to the river water because the protesters have been prevented from using ‎nearby public bathrooms, thanks to orders giving by the authorities in an attempt to force them to leave.

The terrible odour of the street, presumably the consequence of people who eat, sleep and sometimes empty their bladders in one place, intensified over the next few days. The homeless became more desperate and frustrated as their sit-in continued.

“The Cairo governorate's office has done absolutely nothing so far, and of course we’re still struggling,” one of the male protesters said on Tuesday. “Most of us quit our jobs to protect our daughters and families, we are vulnerable here… our life is standing still right now, we are doing nothing but sitting here and waiting for some miracle to lift us all.”

On the same predicament, a young man from the camp said: “The government made investigations to see which families really deserve to be gifted apartments, and we were told that over 900 families do.

“However, only ten families from us were given units, the rest of the takers were other people whom we know nothing about… this is stark corruption. We still have no houses and are completely ignored.”

Cairo Governor Khalifa said protesters do not fulfil the requisite conditions to be given free residence, which is also “unavailable for the time being.”

According to media reports and testimonies, at least three people have died during the current sit-in and the street has been blocked on more than one occasion, either due to scuffles or as a result of protest escalations. Central Security and military forces are present in the area to prevent riots from breaking out amid “governmental indifference” towards the down-and-out protesters and their precarious situation.

Mohamed El-Helw, a lawyer from the Egyptian Centre for Housing Rights who is handling the Maspero case, told Ahram Online that “there was no actual solution offered to these people and their social status was not genuinely assessed.

“There is no one to even negotiate with them. Only police forces deployed in the area talk to them and they usually threaten to arrest them by enforcing the law that bans sit-ins and strikes. There is absolutely nothing on the horizon.”

Unwise rather than callous is how the authorities have been judged in their dealing with numerous residents of the underprivileged neighbourhood of El-Dowiqah, who found themselves homeless after a catastrophic rock avalanche had swept many of their houses and claimed tens of lives in late 2008.

The disaster left no doubt that the area cannot be a safe residential area, and thus the occupants had to be taken elsewhere.

Hosni Mubarak's government at the time offered the El-Dowiqah people units in the low-income housing project Haram City, owned by Orascom Housing Communities (OHC), a move that triggered a complicated struggle that has been ongoing ever since.

Some of the El-Dowiqah homeless alleged that they were given smaller apartments than they had been promised. Subsequently, they confiscated bigger ones by force, which prompted a legal battle and frequent attempts from security forces to throw them out.

“A lot of residential units across the nation were taken by force after the revolution, some by thugs and others by homeless people who were promised residence by the former regime and got nothing, so they decided to secure their rights forcibly,” stated El-Helw.

“It is all over the country, I even detected some of these cases in [the famous Red Sea resort] Hurghada. The common apartment break-ins to seize ownership and the Maspero saga are the biggest two housing problems Egypt are facing these days,” the attorney concluded.

Reportedly, the El-Dowiqah residents complained of being “discriminated” against and badly treated by the security personnel of Haram City. Some of them said they were unjustly accused more than once of stealing and others complained because they could not enrol their children at the schools there as they were told that only children of “decent” people were admitted. 

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