'We are not dirt': Forced evictions in Egypt’s informal settlements

Sarah El Rashidi, Wednesday 19 Sep 2012

Amnesty International wages a campaign to address the rights of slum residents to adequate housing

Cairo slum
A woman and her child stand in a shack in al-Gayyara slum next to Old Cairo in December 2010. (Photo: Reuters)

Watchdog Amnesty International (AI) held a conference in Cairo Wednesday for its slums project, entitled, "Egypt: Right to Adequate Housing and Informal Settlements: Opportunities and Challenges to Civil Society in the New Context." Participants included human rights organisations, community-based organisations, activists, media personnel, lawyers and architects.

"Evictions should not be carried out in a manner that violates the dignity and human right to life and security of those affected," stated Iain Byrne, policy adviser on economic, social and cultural rights for AI.

More than 12 million people live in Egypt’s slums, the majority in Greater Cairo. Inhabitants are forced to live in inhumane settlements – owing to a severe shortage of affordable housing in the cities – and are subjected to enduring mistreatment by the state, including forced evictions.

The aim of the event was to discuss the situation of housing rights in informal settlements in Egypt, including the right to adequate housing in Egypt's draft constitution.

"Housing is a human right," insisted Mohamed Lotfy, Amnesty International's housing rights expert.

The conference began with a focus on Egypt’s draft constitution and housing rights in law and in practice. It was complemented by a short film on slums in Nigeria and the primary issues affecting Nigeria's indigenous population. This was followed by a panel discussion with activists from Egypt’s slums and AI officials.

New opportunities and challenges following the revolution were discussed and a documentary – 'The Forgotten Island: El Waraq,' by human right activists and journalists Sarah El-Rashidi and Sara Abou Bakr – was also screened and discussed.

Gezirit Al-Waraq is an island of extreme poverty just kilometres from central Cairo. In 2006, the government had planned to transform the island into a luxury tourist resort and provide the residents with alternative housing on the mainland. However, after the islanders refused to move, the island was left without noticeable reform of its residents' basic needs.

"We are not living like human beings," asserted Rafat Abdel Nebi, the film’s leading character, who, like many participants, emphasised the importance of protecting their rights in the new constitution. More than 40,000 people live on the island, according to the health ministry and WHO sources. But the people of Al-Waraq insist that the island's population is at least double that number.

The film raised pivotal issues related to the lives of slum dwellers who reside in inhumane conditions, often at grave risk due to a variety of natural hazards. The notorious rockslide in Muqattam, Cairo that killed 55 in 2008 exemplified the associated risks. There are countless other threats related to inadequate health, education, infrastructure and transportation facilities.

"We need to pay more attention to solid urban planning," stressed Yosri, a UN Habitat audience participant.

AI used the conference and its report as a platform to appeal to Egyptian authorities to take immediate action to protect slum dwellers in life-threatening situations, including evacuating hazardous areas and temporarily or permanently re-housing the residents.

The rights watchdog implored the state to respect safeguards required under international law to prevent forced evictions, an abuse defined by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) as "the permanent or temporary removal against their will of individuals, families and/or communities from the homes and/or land which they occupy without the provision of and access to, appropriate forms of legal or other protection."

Safeguards incorporate genuine consultation with those affected concerning resettlement options, sufficient information about plans, written notice of evictions, provision of satisfactory alternative housing, and or compensation for losses, stated the AI report.

However, plans for Egypt’s slums – referred to in Egyptian law as "unplanned areas" – are being developed and implemented in ways that fail to respect the human rights of residents. This is demonstrated by the "Cairo 2050 Plan" designed by the General Organization for Physical Planning (GOPP) at the Ministry of Housing and Utilities and Urban Development.

The plan envisions a sophisticated city on par with international standards and aims to "redistribute" the populace of Cairo and Giza to the suburbs of outlying cities, such as 6 October and Helwan.

International human rights law states that evictions should only be carried out as a last resort, after all feasible options have been investigated in candid consultation with those concerned. This, in conjunction with broader responsibilities to ensure the right to adequate housing, necessitates that the state investigate solutions to upgrade housing and living conditions.

"We are not dirt. It is our right to live. We demand to live a proper, healthy life," Aliyah Mohamed Ahmed, resident of the Ezbet Abu Qarn slum in Old Cairo was quoted as saying in AI’s report.

For years, slum dwellers have been ill-treated by authorities, subjected to illegal forced evictions that often cause them to lose their jobs and few belongings the possess, and threatened with arbitrary arrest based on repressive emergency legislation if they resist. 

"People look down on us as slum dwellers. We are often perceived as thugs and criminals," said one dejected young man who attended the AI event.

Post-revolution political developments have presented Egypt's new government with a momentous opportunity to ensure that the rights of Egypt’s slum inhabitants are upheld with dignity.

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