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Tuesday, 15 June 2021

Egypt: Safe as houses

Ahmed Al-Sigini, head of parliament’s Local Administration Committee, talks with Al-Ahram Weekly about legislation to combat the violation of building codes

Gamal Essam El-Din , Friday 11 Sep 2020
Safe as houses
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In a speech on 29 August President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi slammed illegal construction on state-owned and agricultural land, saying all state authorities have a duty to end building violations in line with the Reconciliation in Construction Violations Law passed by parliament on 24 December 2019. 

“If required,” he said, “the army will be deployed across the country to demolish illegal buildings.”

On 4 September the cabinet issued a statement saying the government will continue to crack down on illegal buildings and is determined to meet the six month deadline, which ends on 30 September, it set itself to effect reconciliation in line with the law.

“The government will not extend the reconciliation period beyond 30 September,” said the statement, “and is determined to stem the tide of haphazard building and preserve agricultural lands.”

The reconciliation law, ratified by President Al-Sisi on 13 January 2020, is causing concern among many citizens who complain that the deadline is too short and the fines that they are required to pay to legaliae buildings are too high.

Al-Ahram Weekly speaks to Ahmed Al-Sigini, head of parliament’s Local Administration Committee, which reviewed the draft law before it was approved by the House of Representatives.

 

What are the objectives of the reconciliation law?

The government-drafted law took four years of preparation and was discussed in detail by the Local Administration Committee and thoroughly revised by the State Council. It addresses the situation of around three million families living in 700,000 buildings which have been constructed illegally since 2011. Some government circles say the law will also cover two million building offences committed between 2000 and 2017.

 

What, in this context, do you mean by illegal?

I mean buildings which were constructed on agricultural or state-owned land without the necessary permits being acquired, and multi-storey buildings constructed without proper licences or compliance with safety standards. The inhabitants of these illegal housing units often resort to stealing electricity and water supplies. 

Egypt saw a rise in illegal buildings during the security vacuum that followed the 2011 uprising. The law is designed to end construction offences and requires violators to reach a reconciliation agreement with the authorities by 30 September, the cut-off point for all construction offences to be settled. President Al-Sisi has warned that officials should either end illegal construction or leave their posts. He stressed that henceforth all building will be strictly supervised by the relevant authorities and no new construction permits be issued until all outstanding violations are settled.

 

Many people argue that corruption in local councils has exacerbated the phenomenon of illegal construction and informal settlements across Egypt…

It is true that there have been a lot of complaints that corruption in local councils lies behind the proliferation of construction offences and the media has highlighted how local officials often turn a blind eye to building violations. But local councils are not solely to blame. The fact is former governments all too often lacked a long-term vision on construction, and there were times when citizens felt the government had given them a free hand to build wherever they liked. The result is the informal communities and clusters of illegal red-brick buildings that have sprouted everywhere in Egypt.

During the discussions of the law in parliament it became clear to us that citizens resorted to illegal building for two main reasons, the complex bureaucracy and tangle of red tape that surrounds the acquisition of a building permit, and the lack of state-supervised and licensed land on which to build. Many people resorted to building illegally, mainly on agricultural land, simply because it was the easiest option. There are those, too, who argue that the state can be blamed for not building enough affordable housing. Instead, the door was opened wide to the private sector which focused on building top end housing units for the wealthy. This is the core of the housing crisis in Egypt.

 

People have complained that the 30 September deadline is impractical and should be extended…

I think a lot of the problems in this respect are a result of the government not being clear enough in presenting the reconciliation law. A statement should have been produced in advance answering many of the questions people are now voicing about the law. There is even a problem with local council officials who are in charge of implementing the law yet have a limited understanding of its articles and the mechanisms for implementation.

The law does not include any article indicating that failure to reconcile with the local authority will automatically lead to demolition. Indeed, the purpose of the law promote the public interest by ending construction offences and stemming the tide of building on agricultural land. I hope that the government will extend the deadline beyond 30 September. Officials need to be flexible and understand that a strict deadline will not solve the problem.

 

People also complain that the fines they have to pay to settle construction offences are too high…

This is a significant problem. Officials, both local and national, in charge of implementing the law have to understand that the goal is not to collect as much money as possible or extort citizens. To do so will serve only to stoke social tensions.

We were keen that the law included provisions for people to appeal the amount they are fined. The fines should be reasonable, ranging from LE50 to LE200 per square metre. Officials need to be cautious and avoid any steps that might be be provocative to citizens. They will have to take into account that the majority of the owners of illegal housing units are limited or average income citizens who cannot afford to pay hefty fines. And there needs to be a differentiation between construction offences in a poor village and say, a high-class district in Cairo. 

When we were discussing the law, we stressed that the government will have to take a host of social considerations into account. I would urge the government to review the fines levied on a governorate by governorate basis. I’d also advise that after the 30 September deadline the government thoroughly examines the first phase of implementation and its results. Has it checked the number of offences? Has it actively encouraged the reconciliation process? The Local Administration Committee is already preparing a meeting in the first week of October to evaluate the government’s performance in implementing the law.

 

What do you think should happen next?

Governors and local authorities should accept as many reconciliation requests as possible. They need to know that the objective is not to collect fines but to settle offences. If they impose hefty fines citizens will refrain from submitting reconciliation requests and this could fuel social tension. The higher the fines, the fewer the requests, so even in terms of collecting money it makes sense to set fines at a reasonable level and thereby encourage more people to legalise their buildings.

In one governorate with a population of just one million and an estimated 30,000 construction offences, 28,000 violators, encouraged by low fines, submitted reconciliation requests. In another governorate with a population of seven million, but where the fines were higher, just 3000 reconciliation requests were received.

My advice to local authorities and governors is to underline the fact that the law aims to promote social peace not to trigger social tensions. It is a law for reconciliation not for confrontation. Please differentiate between old offences committed during a time of chaos and deserving of reconciliation, and new offences which require firm confrontation.

I also hope that there will be greater cooperation between the government and parliament in the post-30 September period in terms of assessing the impact of the implementation of the law. 

 

*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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