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Wednesday, 21 April 2021

The power of neighbourhood lobbying

Social media is increasingly being used to communicate complaints about developments taking place in residential neighbourhoods in Cairo, reports Nesmahar Sayed

Nesmahar Sayed , Tuesday 23 Feb 2021
The power of neighbourhood lobbying
The power of neighbourhood lobbying
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Since January this year, many social media groups have been protesting against a number of development projects that if implemented could badly affect some Cairo neighbourhoods. It seems that their protests have been working.

First, there was a campaign against setting up the Cairo Eye, a Zamalek-based project that would have seen Cairo’s first Ferris wheel at a height of 120m and providing a panoramic view of the city set up on the island of Zamalek in Cairo.

Zamalek residents were anything but welcoming of the project, saying it would add to the congested traffic in the neighbourhood as well as jeopardise the safety of buildings. The island is already suffering from the effects of digging work for the new Cairo metro line.

A couple of weeks later came news of plans to build a bridge above the Basilica of the Holy Virgin, the iconic Roman Catholic Church located in Al-Ahram Square in Heliopolis.

The Basilica, where Baron Empain, the Belgian industrialist who founded Heliopolis, is buried, is a 100-year-old listed heritage site, and it is prohibited by law to build anything obstructing views around it.

News of the project stirred an outcry among Heliopolis residents, and Facebook groups were formed to reject the project. Members of the social media groups met with officials as well as their representatives in parliament.

Although there has been no official statement so far saying the two projects have been annulled, the campaigns have succeeded in suspending the developments until thorough studies of their effects on the neighbourhoods are done.

“Thanks to the authorities for listening to our voices and accepting our demands to save Heliopolis and its heritage,” Rafic Sabet, administrator of the Facebook group “No to building the Basilica bridge”, said.

Sabet said that he had formed the group just days after discovering that a bridge would be built in front of the Basilica. He told Al-Ahram Weekly that 320 members joined the group within two hours, and in 10 days the number was almost 200,000.

The group includes members of the Heliopolis Heritage Initiative, a heritage group, officials, and MPs.

Tarek Shoukri, the MP for Heliopolis and Nasr City, visited the area and made a quick poll of residents about the new bridge. The result was their 100 per cent rejection. “This result was delivered to the authorities, and we hope a final decision is taken to stop the bridge,” Shoukri said,

Heliopolis, built in the early 20th century on the eastern outskirts of Cairo as an escape for the well-off and long known for its green areas, has seen a lot of developments over the last year, with almost six new flyovers built in different streets. While helping to deal with congested traffic, these have come at the expense of thousands of trees being cut down in the streets where the bridges were built.

“We welcome the developments, but not ones that change the identity of Heliopolis,” Shoukri said, pointing out that this was one of the reasons the campaign against the Basilica bridge had gained such momentum.

Sohaila Al-Sawi, chair of the Egyptian Association for the Environment and Community Services (EAECS), an NGO, told the Weekly that stopping the cutting down of trees was another cause social media campaigns were adopting.

Pictures of truckloads of logs being carried away had terrified Al-Sawi. “I sent the pictures and the video by WhatsApp to the Ministry of Environment,” she said. “I did this because I care, and knowing that many others do as well is what community participation is all about.”

A reply came almost immediately from the ministry notifying Al-Sawy that “environmental inspection” would be carried out on site. 

“At least someone cared to reply, which is more promising than no reply,” she said. 

In normal circumstances, localities would be responsible for such problems, but as long as local elections are postponed then communication between people and government is the task of NGOs and civil society initiatives, said Amr Al-Chobaky, an expert at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

All municipal councils were dissolved after the 2011 Revolution, and since then Egypt has had no elected municipal councils, especially as parliament is still discussing the new local administration law.

“This has opened the door for more participation by residents in deciding what happens in their neighbourhoods,” Al-Chobaky said. The government should communicate with civil society and social media groups to assess people’s reactions to such projects, he added.

He said that since there were at present no elected municipal councils, people miss mechanisms for solving daily life issues. Such issues need mediators between the people and the government in the absence of localities, he said.

Another neighbourhood that is looking for a solution to its problems is Sheikh Zayed in 6 October City. Residents of the neighbourhood have used their social media accounts to express their rejection of the spread of shops and restaurants on highways leading to the city.

Lobna Olama, a concerned Zayed resident, told the Weekly that “almost two decades ago, many invested their life savings in new homes in the 6 October area and happily watched the undeveloped desert metamorphose into beautiful, peaceful, and exclusive residential neighbourhoods.

 “Unfortunately, and in less than a year, an invasion of restaurants, cafes, and shops on either side of the service roads leading to the city took residents by surprise. The buffer zone that separated the residential areas from the bustling highways disappeared and was now occupied by a long strip of food outlets and shops in blatant violation of the city’s masterplan which did not include such commercial entities,” she said.

“The elegant and peaceful Sheikh Zayed and 6 October will unfortunately degenerate, succumbing to chaos and dysfunction” if something is not done, she said. “We will do our utmost to have our legitimate objections and concerns heard and dealt with appropriately. We have raised the issue with government officials and contacted MPs to help us. We will knock on all doors to resolve this issue.” 

Al-Sawi shares Olama’s determination and believes that when there is no reply from the authorities, which sometimes happens, persistence is the only way.

“My advice is that if you care enough to pursue something, there will always be someone who cares enough to take action,” she said.

 

*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

 

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