Listening to the residents: Away from home in Zamalek

Nesmahar Sayed , Wednesday 9 Dec 2020

Al-Ahram Weekly hears the stories of Zamalek residents forced to abandon their homes due to structural problems aggravated by ongoing construction on a new underground line

Away from home in Zamalek
Away from home in Zamalek

Residents of three buildings in the upper class suburb of Zamalek had to vacate their homes starting 1 December for one month due to structural problems aggravated by ongoing construction on a new underground line.

The work, from Safaa Hegazi station to Kit Kat station, will pass through Ismail Mohamed Street where the three buildings are located. To guarantee the safety of the buildings, the Egyptian National Authority for Tunnels and the contractor surveyed 56 nearby buildings, according to a statement issued by the Ministry of Transportation.

The survey revealed that seven buildings might be affected due to their proximity to the digging. Among those, three buildings — 3A, 5, and 7 — have already showed inclinations. Buildings 5 and 7, located in the same block and built over 90 years ago, lean 19cm, while building 3A has an inclination of 13.4cm.

Therefore, the architectural committee recommended that the three buildings be evacuated before the tunnelling starts. The government said it will pay LE1,000 a day in compensation to residents during the month in which the digging will take place.

After finishing construction, a technical committee from the Ministry of Housing and the Cairo governorate will check the condition of the buildings and decide whether they need work to be restored or demolished altogether.

Kamel Al-Wazir, the minister of transportation, said the buildings may have to be demolished, in which case residents will be given new flats somewhere else in the city. In case they reject the settlement, they are free to file a lawsuit, Al-Wazir recently told Al-Hekaya TV talk show.

Residents of the three buildings have already rejected the offer even after Al-Wazir paid a visit to the district and met some residents as well as the owners of shops in the affected buildings. 

“Five years ago, the Metro Association decided to have the third metro line pass through Ismail Mohamed Street in Zamalek. The decision was rejected by many Zamalek residents due to the nature of the soil in the district. What we feared is happening now,” one building resident told Al-Ahram Weekly.

A study conducted five years ago by Ali Raafat, a professor of architecture at Cairo University, on the effect of building the underground third line 10 metres under Ismail Mohamed Street concluded that it would represent “a big threat to the inhabitants in the area and its ancient buildings”.

“We tried everything to stop this but we failed,” Mariam Raheb, a resident, told the Weekly.

Since the decision to evacuate their building, Raheb and her father met the legal consultant of the French company implementing the project as well as a senior engineer from the construction company. They asked them to take all the necessary precautions and conduct surveys to guarantee the safety of the old buildings. But their worst fears are coming true.

Hoda Ghali, an owner of an apartment in building No 7 where the meeting with the minister took place, told the Weekly that the minister promised that if anything happened to the buildings the ministry will give the residents “very good” compensation. “He said that if the price of one metre of land ranges between 10 and 20, for example, then he would give us the highest value,” Ghali said.

However, for Ghali, who had to leave all her furniture in the apartment behind, taking only her papers and clothes upon the minister’s instructions, her memories of the building where she grew up are more precious than any compensation.

Christine Phillipe, an owner of one of the buildings, said she, as well as other residents of building No 7, were surprised to find out about the inclinations and that there was a decision to restore the building in 1995 that they knew nothing about.

Amal Afifi, a law consultant whose office is in the building, said that families would get LE30,000 in compensation for the month but that the ministry refused suggestions to add legal language in the contract that would safeguard their rights when returning to the building.

“We were forced to leave the buildings under threat that all the facilities will be cut and that whoever insists to stay is responsible for the decision,” Afifi said, adding that “28 apartments and 11 shops do not have any written guarantees in the contract.”

Ayman Saqr, a shop owner in one building, agreed with Afifi regarding the guarantees. Saqr said that during the last two years his business was much affected by the digging of the tunnel and the subsequent closures of streets in Zamalek, then Covid-19. “Shop owners have to pay their debts and may lose clients. Our business is negatively affected by the situation,” Saqr said.

William Arthur Swannell, a retired project director and a resident of one building, pointed out that while the time schedule for the evacuation was from 1 December for a period of 30 days, the pace of work might take double the time. Swannell, married to Magda Sedki, an owner of a flat in building No 7 since 1994, sent a letter to the European Investment Bank, which is funding the project to inform them of the situation.

The Weekly has obtained a copy of the letter where Swannell asked the bank to clarify the actual duration of tunnelling for the 60-metre frontage of the block as well as a copy of all existing building surveys carried out. 

He included residents’ complaints that the promoter has not taken into consideration their opinion when designing the metro line in crossing the island of Zamalek, thus questioning the transparency of the public consultation process carried out by the promoter.

The complainants allege that the construction work will bring substantial disturbances to the area proposed for the location of the station in Zamalek. They criticised the lack of adequate mitigation measures to reduce risks during the construction and operation of the station.

“The normal procedure in the UK in such circumstances is to purchase the units involved,” Swannell told the Weekly. “This usually consists of an independent evaluation, an additional sum for illegal works and moving expenses.

“This is what is being carried out on the new railway HS2 presently being constructed in the UK,” Swannell cited as an example.

According to an engineer resident who preferred to remain anonymous, all what they asked for was more precautions, community dialogue with the residents and the opinion of the Centre of Building Research in nearby Dokki, considered the major authority on such issues.

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

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