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Fixing The ‘Ashwa’iyyat ?

December 22, 2013

This photo is by another former AUC student. Photo Credit: Hossam el-Hamalawy حسام الحملاوي via Compfight cc

This photo is by another former AUC student. Photo Credit: Hossam el-Hamalawy حسام الحملاوي via Compfight cc

One day when they were about ten or eleven, I took my daughter Madi and her best friend, Aline, to a craftsman in a shop in a working class area of Cairo, just off Mohammed Ali street. I needed an expert to fix Madi’s violin.

The girl, daughter of an Egyptian millionaire, had never been on the metro before, and when we arrived in the neighborhood she looked around wide-eyed and asked “Are we in a slum?”

Alas, no. Mohammed Ali street may have faded from its heyday as the vibrant heart of Egypt’s musical scene, but dwellers in the  ‘ashwa’iyyat  wish they could live in Mohammed Ali. I tried to explain to her that Manshayet Nasser was as far below Mohammed Ali in living standards as Mohammed Ali was from her neighborhood in Ma’adi.

She could not imagine. And there was no way her dad was going to let me take her to Manshayet Nasser…

I’m reminded of this story because my friend Safaa Marafi was quoted in a story about the problem of Egypt’s ‘ashwa’iyyat (slums) in a recent edition of the English-language Al-Ahram Weekly.

The term ‘ashwa’iyyat can mean a number of things, and has many cultural connotations, but in this case it refers to informal housing areas–sections of the city built by desperate people in defiance of zoning laws, building codes, or legal title, and usually without adequate water, sewage or electricity (much less access to health care or education).

A few facts:

  • Almost 16 million Egyptians live in the country’s 1,221 informal housing areas
  • In Cairo, about 63 per cent of the population–11 million people–live in 81 informal areas,
  • According to the UN’s human settlements agency, three of the world’s 30 largest slums are found in Cairo: Mansheyet Nasser, Ezbet Al-Haggana, and Dar Al-Salam.

The Mubarak regime ignored the growing slum problems, as many governments around the world have. Committed to the project of economic privatization, public works projects were put on hold for about three decades.

And Aline’s confusion of working class Cairo neighborhoods with slums reflects the evil genius of the regime: whenever they wanted to tear down a working class neighborhood to allow developers to build something like the Ramses Hilton, they just reclassified shops that had been in craftsman and laborer families for years as  ‘ashwa’iyyat, had state media run stories about them being crime-ridden eyesores for a few months, then relocated the people to cinder block dwellings on the outskirts of Cairo and tore the neighborhoods down.

It was called “urban development.”

The ‘ashwa’iyyat are just one of the vast number of serious economic and social problems plaguing the new Egypt, with which the next elected government will eventually have to deal.

According to the Al-Ahram article, some efforts are already under way:

  • The “Billion Dollar Campaign to Develop Slums” was launched in 2011 by actor Mohamed Sobhi and supported by well-known public figures like television preacher Amr Khaled, actress Hanan Tork, businessman Niazi Sallam, raised LE110 million for slum relief.
  • The army announced a plan to spend LE50 million to build 600,000 housing units for people living in slums. ‘Ashwa’iyyat dwellers would be hired to help build their own homes (earning much needed cash), They would get a guaranteed rent-free lease but would not own the flats, so they could not sell them for cash
  • The state is simultaneously trying to develop a public-private partnership to help solve the problem.
  • The country’s new constitution may include an article requiring the state to provide basic facilities for ‘ashwa’iyyat.

Top down solutions, as usual. But as Safaa is quoted as saying in the article:

For Safaa Marafi, a sociologist, the way forward should be to start with research projects that focus on the people living in the slums in order to understand their needs, priorities and expectations.

“It is not only about providing them with a new home. Understanding their culture, needs and way of life is essential to helping provide them with the necessary resources they need, whether proper education, jobs, or medical assistance.”

You can see her AUC education in that quotation. The value–and ethical significance–of qualitative research methods were not lost on her.

And while we’re on the subject, my account of my daughter’s friend reflect Safaa Marafi’s broad expertise in the cultural dimensions of urban settlements, planned and unplanned. She cannot only speak interestingly of ‘aishwaiyyat, but is the author of a paper on the involvement (or lack of involvement) of people in gated communities in the revolution. You can read it here.

You can read the Al-Ahram article here

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