No place like home: what drives Egypt's new wave of squatters?

Ahmed Feteha, Sayed Badawi Neguela and Michael Gunn, Saturday 5 Nov 2011

The full story behind the removal of thousands of illegal occupants from a Cairo suburb last week shines a disturbing light on the immensity of Egypt's housing crisis, as Ahram Online discovers

Beit El-Eila
One week after the evictions, security trucks still lurk on the road before Beit El-Eila (Photo: Ahmed Feteha)

Mohamed Gomaa has been finding it tougher by the month to scrape together the $85 (LE500) for the apartment he rents with his young wife. 

Some days he hauls timber on building sites; at other times he drives a tuk-tuk, one of the motorised three-wheeled rickshaws that swarm the chaotic intersection near his home. Both jobs are irregular; neither pays more than LE50 a day. 

So when Mohamed saw squatters descend on the housing complex just 100 metres from his home at the start of last week, the effusive 30-something fully believed his family deserved a place. 

"These apartments have been vacant for over two years, it's obvious the buyers don't need their homes as much as we do," he told Ahram Online.

Taking his tools, blankets and a mattress, Mohamed forced open a two-bedroom unit and set up camp on its bare, unfurnished floor.

He was just one of the hundreds of Egyptians who flocked to occupy homes in Beit El-Eila, a hitherto mostly vacant community of over 1,200 apartments built for low-income families on the southern fringes of 6th of October City.

On Thursday, after four tense days, riot police stormed the development and dispersed the squatters whose numbers were by then said to have swelled to two thousand.

“I just wanted to live in an apartment without paying rent. I would have paid the sum they were asking for ownership," Mohamed said, three days after being evicted from his self-proclaimed new home.

He expressed his willingness to "sell everything" he owned and borrow at crippling rates to raise the LE5,000 ($850) he had heard a single unit cost.

Sitting 10 kilometres west of central Cairo, the sprawling planned community of October City is best known for its glitzy malls and gated villas. But the outer reaches are distinctly less glamourous, with battered apartment blocks lining garbage-strewn streets and residents eeking out uncertain lives.

For Egyptians desperate for affordable housing -- as well as a few keen on earning quick, illicit profits -- the empty and relatively prosperous-looking homes at Beit El-Eila were just too tempting to ignore. 

A week after the events, Beit El-Eila is once again deathly quiet; a midday amble through its curving streets of uniform, pastel-shaded three-storey buildings feels like a saunter through an abandoned movie set.

The entrances to vacant apartment blocks have been crudely blocked with planks, barrels and wire. A half-dozen trucks crammed with black-clad security police line the nearby main road, sending a blunt message to anyone contemplating a return.

Every popular film needs its heroes and villains. When it came to Beit El-Eila, much of the state-run Egyptian media was happy to oblige, describing last week's clashes as a clear-cut battle between noble security forces and armed thieves.

But a complex script -- a theatrical drama, perhaps -- would unfold the mixed motives behind Egypt's latest wave of squatting. It would also show the phenomenon's root in the historic failure of both the public and private sectors to provide affordable housing for a soaring and mostly impoverished population.

Figures for the 2006/2007 financial year - the last available - show only 12 per cent of Egypt's total housing units were aimed for medium or low income families. State figures, meanwhile, reveal that Egypt has a total of 1.4 million unoccupied homes; some 15 per cent of the country's housing stock. Capping it all is one truly worrying figure: Egypt's estimated 6 million families without a home.

With supply and demand stacked like that, few have been surprised that Mubarak's ouster has been followed by a new wave of squatting, as the disenfranchised see Egypt's security vacuum as a chance to take matters into their own hands.

What led Beit El-Eila's first illegal settlers to the development is unknown, but there were several witnesses to their first appearance late on 23 October.

“On Sunday night small groups of people came and broke into a few buildings -- maybe six of them. After that, numbers grew and grew until they took over almost all the vacant buildings in the project," recalls Walid Abdel Aziz, a two-year resident of one of the community's few inhabited bungalows. 

Egypt's major media quickly labelled the squatters "armed thugs," who looted property and terrorised existing residents. The accusations had an element of truth, according to witnesses on all sides.

"There were some who I would say were thugs - they were armed and seemed to be looking for trouble. They even tried to enter my building," says Abdel Aziz. "But there were others who seemed very poor and just wanted a place to live."

With his three-year-old daughter gripping his hand, Abdel Aziz recalls four nights of fear, as gunshots echoed in nearby streets and the area's handful of long-term residents worried they would be forced from their homes.

The initial response from Egyptian authorities seemed to fan the flames, with witnesses claiming that a small group of Central Security Forces (CSF) arrived and officers assured squatters their demands would be met and they would be allowed to purchase units.

“They were given a promise that they would be granted legitimate ownership of the apartments -- of course that brought even more people here," says Essam, a driver with Arab Contractors, the builder of the development which still provides on-site maintenance. 

The later arrivals reportedly came with luggage and simple furniture in a bid to prove their eligibility for a subsidised home. In a bizarre twist, some of the presumptive owners were said to have already begun selling their new apartments for LE500 -- a virtual futures market in property they didn't yet own.

When the riot police returned en masse on Thursday, however, the earlier promise was revealed as a cynical move by authorities to buy time to muster forces for a full-scale clearance.

It was only the latest in the seeming series of murky agreements and misunderstandings that make up the brief history of Beit El-Eila.

Finished two years ago by Arab Contractors, a publicly-owned construction firm, units in the development were to be assigned to "key workers" by the government-affiliated New Urban Communities Authority (NUCA). 

Owners were to include members of professional syndicates, the general prosecution and other government bodies. Those assigned a home paid a LE5,000 ($833) deposit, followed by monthly installments of LE300 ($50). The government subsidised each apartment to the sum of LE15,000. 

Critics say these preferential terms benefited mostly middle-income civil servants who bought a second home, which has become a familiar way for Egyptians to earn tax-free savings.

Despite the completion of much of the development in 2009, however, many -- perhaps the majority of -- apartments are still without an owner. Walking through the community's streets after the mass eviction, only five or six homes sport ragged curtains or laundry waving in the breeze to suggest occupants within.

Varied groups suggest several reasons for the failure to deliver homes, from a desire to make profits to simple incompetency. 

Egypt's Housing Minister, Fathy El-Baradie said earlier this week, after the squatters were forcibly removed, that apartments were only offered to lower-income segments and that all units had been assigned to owners. 

Both pieces of information were denied by the 6th of October City's housing authority.

The authority's chief Adel Ezz refused to disclose the number of unassigned units, saying they are in the process of tallying them but said the relevant units still needed final fixtures and fittings.

Arab Contractors has denied claims it failed to hand over the units to the NUCA -- who would then give them to owners -- because of unpaid dues. 

"We are a government entity as well, we aren't going to hold units hostage until we get our money," says Effat Abdallah, the firm's public relations manager, adding that Beit El-Eila was handed over to NUCA "a long time ago".

To battle housing inequity youth recently established the New Urban Communities Youth Alliance (NUCYA), which published an online statement blaming the government for creating the problem by offering housing units to those who didn’t necessarily need them, such as the middle-income civil servants.

The alliance also claims the NUCA had held on to the properties long after completion in the hope their market value would increase and can sell them for a sizeable profit.

It also suggested that many of those who occupied Beit El-Eila last week had previously applied for subsidised housing with the NUCA and been ignored.

The NUCYA's claims were echoed by former squatter Mohamed Gomaa, who had never heard of the advocacy group. He told Ahram Online that those who paid the government LE5,000 for their apartments had quickly resold them at upwards of LE30,000. 

But every owner of a unit in Beit El-Eila isn't the rich speculator that Gomaa supposes.

Stuck in the middle are people like Mohamed Mokhtar, an accountant in his 40s who signed up for a home several years ago. Despite recently taking possession of his unit, Mokhtar still rents an apartment in the southern Cairo district of Maadi as he searches October City for a good school for his children.

Perched on his green sofa -- one of the few pieces of furniture in his spartan apartment -- the employee of the Administrative Inspection Authority, expresses his disgust at last week's ordeal.

"I saw people with machine guns and other weapons. Some of them even stole the faucets from the houses they broke into,” he laments. 

To Mokhtar, what happened in Beit El-Eila shows the “mayhem” Egypt has descended into after the 25 January uprising. 

“Could this have happened before? You tell me!” he sputters.

Mubarak's tight security apparatus would no doubt have cracked down on the situation before it escalated. But as Egypt's interim government struggles on and large-scale reform seems a long way off, squatting could become a regular fixture in Egypt's future.

Just days after Beit El-Eila was cleared, the coastal city of Damietta saw squatters claim 800 new apartments; reports again suggested the units were unassigned.

Similar incidents have occurred in the city of Suez and in Ezebet El-Haggana, an outlying Cairo slum, where squatters broke into a youth housing project.

"Some days I find work, some days I don’t," says Mohamed Gomaa, the aspiring father who claimed a home in Beit El-Eila. "When you give these homes to those who don't need them, how can people like me raise a family?"

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