Egypt's slum crisis persists amid housing abundance

Doaa Khalifa (Al-Ahram), Saturday 12 Jan 2013

Over 16 million Egyptians live in inhumane conditions, while over six million formal housing units have been reported vacant; housing advocates warn that slum crisis could get worse

Manshiyet Nasser
An Egyptian resident leaves a house in Manshiyet Nasser shanty town in eastern Cairo (Photo:Reuters)

More than 16 million people out of a population that has exceeded 80 million currently live in Egypt’s slums, most of which are based in the Greater Cairo metropolitan area.

Inhabitants are forced to live in inhumane settlements, owing to a severe shortage of affordable housing in the cities, suffer from lack of electricity and sewage services, and are subjected to mistreatment by the state, including regular forced evictions.

Thousands of poor Egyptians who survive in slum areas are left on their own to deal with extreme heat in the summer or treacherous rain stints in the winter, such as a recent storm that drenched shanty towns across the country.

The ever-growing number of slum dwellers highlights the huge disparity in the distribution of wealth, residential units, and unequal access to housing options.

The Egyptian Centre for Housing Rights (ESCR), an NGO specialised in defending citizens' right to adequate housing, said in a recent report that although millions of citizens lack proper shelter there are almost six million vacant residential units in Cairo alone. The report also stated that almost 250,000 families own more than three housing units while 18 per cent of Egyptian families live in "one room" units.

The deteriorating slum issue is perceived by the Egyptian government as a "ticking social bomb." The government has repeatedly said that it lacks the resources to build enough units to keep up with high birth rates.

However, the problem cannot be reduced to scarce resources or inadequate infrastructure, but should rather be attributed to the absence of a "social justice" mindset in formulating housing policies, ESCR said in several press statements since the January 2011 popular uprising.

"Governmental policies since the 1970s have always been biased to big capital and profit accumulation rather than the society's lower tranches. Governments literally ignored informal housing; it was never their priority," Khaled Ali, a prominent labour lawyer and former presidential candidate, told Ahram Online.

Housing experts and activists have denounced "neoliberal" policies that were implemented in 1991 as a result of the Economic Reform and Structural Adjustment Program (ERSAP) introduced in Egypt by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), deeming it the main reason for persistent housing inequality in the country.

"The effects of neoliberalism were detrimental; the housing sector became dependent on house ownership rather than rental, which forced low-income people out of the formal housing system into slums for lack of affordable housing alternatives," added Ali.

Watchdog Amnesty International (AI) also released a report following Egypt’s January revolution entitled, "We Are Not Dirt: Forced Evictions in Egypt's Informal Settlements," in which it criticised the government's policy towards residents in slum areas.

Slum inhabitants should be the priority after a revolution that called for social justice, and authorities should understand that "housing is a human right," Amnesty's report emphasised.

"Forceful measures to dismantle informal settlements are not the solution. A policy aimed at relocating slum inhabitants and creating employment centres outside of main cities should be the government's main mindset, and this does not seem to be the case," explained Ali.

There no signs the government of Prime Minister Hisham Kandil may adopt a different approach to the crisis anytime soon, according to Manal El-Tiby, the ESCR head who resigned last fall from the Constituent Assembly that wrote Egypt’s constitution, protesting the lack of gurrantees for the poor in the draft produced.

"The way the current leadership will deal in the future with slum inhabitants is very apparent in the way economic and social rights were formulated in Egypt's new constitution," she told Ahram Online

"The fact that the government is bound by Egypt's new constitution, which is only protecting legitimate private ownership, means that informal settlements will never be recognised by the government and that slum inhabitants will be subjected to the same treatment they got from the previous regime."

Egypt Housing Minister Tarek Wafik previously announced that the private sector should assist the state in improving housing infrastructure and providing residential units.

"This philosophy behind the housing minister's recent statements is quite problematic, because the private sector by nature is profit-oriented and thus will never provide affordable housing options. This means that slums will continue to rise," El-Tibi added.

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