Unsafe foundations: Egypt's latest wave of illegal building

Bassem Abo Alabass, Wednesday 29 Jun 2011

Egyptians are taking advantage of the security vacuum to build on agricultural land and add extra floors to their homes. But there may be troubles ahead

(Photo by Mai Shaheen)

The olive branch and the gun: Essam expected one but got the other. 

A few weeks ago he returned from Cairo to the Upper Egypt governorate of Minya where he was born, came of age and still owns several acres of land for raising crops. Visiting his plot after months away Essam saw dramatic growth -- but not the kind he anticipated. 

Two red-brick buildings now sat upon his formerly pristine field, iron bars sprouting from roofs carpeted in polythene sheets. A mud-caked motorbike leaned against the wall, a few chickens pecking the churned up dirt. Through a paneless window came the excited chatter of a TV chatshow.

Spotting a resident peering from the doorway, Essam stormed forward. "What are these buildings doing on my land?" he yelled. 

That's when he saw the gun. His new tenant was pointing a hunting rifle squarely at his chest.

"Go now," grunted the resident, gesturing with his firearm. "Go or you'll have trouble."

Essam was at the sharp end of what appears to be a growing trend. 

As police and security forces struggle to reassert control of the streets, growing numbers of Egyptians are breaking the law in a bid to improve their living conditions. Building restrictions are seeing the most sustained challenge -- perhaps no surprise for a country with a historic shortage of low-cost housing.

In rural areas, as Essam discovered, it can take the form of illicit building on agricultural land. In the cities it might mean adding floors to already standing and legal buildings -- a popular tactic in some of Cairo's most crowded slums.

A report published on 12 June by the Ministry of Planning said that the real estate sector had slumped in the months after the revolution, in sharp contrast to the surge in illegal building made possible by lapses in policing over the same period.

Khaled Moustafa, spokesman for Cairo governorate, told Ahram Online that law no.119, passed in 2008, gives the police wide-ranging powers against suspected building violations. 

Whereas private legal action was once the only recourse, the 3-year old law allows police to detain and fine building owners, architects, construction crews and even the district councillor in whose neighbourhood the offence allegedly occurred.

But in 2011 things are very different. The security situation means pragmatism is taking priority over the law. 

"We can't stop those breaking the law at the moment due to the imbalance in police forces," said Moustafa, explaining that the problem has been exacerbated by the loss of centralised control over mubna ha'i (local government headquarters) in many of Cairo's 33 neighbourhoods.

"Many of these offices were destroyed and set on fire during the revolution and they haven't yet been replaced," he said. 

This has put the onus of lawkeeping on the governorate itself. Moustafa recalls receiving a report of 40 building violations in the western slum of Manshiet Nasser and dispatching police and government officials to demolish the offending buildings.

He told Ahram Online the governorate will soon launch a telephone hotline by which Cairo residents will be able to report uncertified buildings in their neighbourhoods.

Just how widespread is the problem? The very nature of illegal building combines with piecemeal Egyptian statistics to make it very difficult to determine. 

The number of slums in Egypt was placed at 1,221 in 1993, the last time an official count was made, according to official statistics body CAPMAS. 

Despite government attempts launched that year to 'upgrade' them by adding services, running water and regulating housing, many of these settlements remain of dubious legality.

Trying to find the facts on the ground can also be problematic. Ahram Online met a furious response from residents of the slums of Fisal-Giza last week when it tried to measure public opinion.

"We are free to build on farmland and on the water - it's none of your business!" a bawab (doorman) roared at our reporter when he tactfully asked about building practices. 

Around one major street in Fisal-Giza, Ahram Online saw nearly a dozen tottering buildings, each nine-storeys or more, at least four levels higher than officially allowed. Half were finished, the rest still under construction.

It's just one of the areas in the capital that are infamous for illegal building. Others include the so-called 'trash city' of Manshiet Nasser, Dweka and parts of Ein Shams. 

But the practices aren't restricted to Cairo, other Delta governorates have similar settlements, as do Upper Egyptian towns like Minya and Qena, and Egypt's second city of Alexandria.

"Someone told me that in Alexandria there can be as many as 10 illegal extra floors in one building," said Ahmed El-Zeiny, head of the building materials division at the Cairo Chamber of Commerce.

Reports of the rising costs of building materials are also having divergent effects on legal and illegal building. 

In early June, the state-owned Holding Company for Construction announced  90 per cent of its subsidiaries had frozen construction due to the high prices of cement and steel and problems with financial liquidity tied to government debts.

Recent news seemed to bear this claim out. Egypt's major steel producer, Ezz Steel, announced in early June it was raising its rebar price by 4.3 per cent on the back of global rises and increased import costs.

El-Zeiny thinks reports of post-revolution price hikes have been exaggerated.

"Building materials are stable," he said. "Cement ranges between LE 470 and LE 500 per ton to the consumer, compared to LE 550 before the revolution. Steel prices are recording a maximum of LE5,000 per ton."

El-Zeiny said that even if materials had become more costly, building activity would still have grown.

"The problem is not related to the prices of cement or steel. The security vacuum provides a window of opportunity for people to build without being caught," he said.

Aside from potential land theft and safety concerns, there is another reason for Egyptians to be wary of illegal building, say experts: the potentially catastrophic effect on the country's agricultural output

Egypt currently ranks first in the world in the loss of fertile land -- called desertification -- due to sustained building on the country's increasingly scarce argiculturally-useful land.

In the wake of the revolution the problem has intensified. Egypt is losing 5 feddans of agricultural land every hour, according to a report from Ismail Abdel Jalil, Egyptian coordinator for the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, issued on Desertification Day on 17 June. 

The UN report says that once lost, Egypt's fertile land is unlikely to be recovered, especially after the closure of land reclamation programs carried out by the state.

Jalil believes the increase in desertification will have a knock-on effect on Egypt's food production capacity, fuelling a rise in import bills for commodities, and called on the government to take rapid decisions to save Egypt from this crisis.

A recent report from the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation gives weight to the UN's claims. It shows that since the outbreak of the January 25 Revolution, a total of 159,000 new legal cases have been filed involving the violation of agricultural lands sized from 5,000 to 7,000 feddans.

“This could threaten Egypt's future and push it to the edge of famine,” said Jalil.

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