Amid piles of refuse that litter narrow, winding passages, a number of decrepit one- or two-story houses stand in a row, covered in scrap metal, on a plot of land that appears bent on expelling them into oblivion.
The Maspero Triangle area of Downtown Cairo extends over approximately 75 acres. Stretching from the banks of the Nile, where the infamous headquarters of the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (also known as Maspero) reigns, it ends at the ever-crowded axes of the 6th of October Bridge, and Galaa Street that belies it.
Despite the polished façade of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs just a few hundred meters away from Maspero, in the hidden backstreets of the area, the stench of poverty is pervasive. In the midst of frequently collapsing bricks, residents claim that the government refuses to intervene to restore these buildings, in light of long-standing plans to evacuate the area for a large-scale development plan that is set to overhaul the entire area.
In its current state, the conditions in the area are among the worst of Cairo’s many informal settlements, where 70% of the population lives in informal settlements. Residents of the Maspero Triangle have complained of lack of access to water and electricity, though such complaints pale against the constant danger of walls collapsing in people’s homes.
Between the risk of death and the prospect of displacement, Cairo's slum-dwellers are caught between a rock and a hard place.
Yet, such neighborhoods are common in the city of 22.8 million residents. In these rampant informal settlements—perhaps the only solution for Cairo’s housing crisis—it is relatively normal to find homes lacking in basic services. In the worst cases, people wade through sewage, both on the streets and inside their homes.
The Stench of Death
The Maspero Triangle area dates back almost 100 years. It is said to have been erected by a Turkish landlord named Sharkas Pacha, to house him and his entourage.
Before leaving Egypt in the 1940s, he created an endowment allowing its residents to remain there for another 20 years. The documentation for this endowment was obtained by Raseef22.
More than half a century after the legal period of the endowment had ended, the residents of the area have multiplied, along with the informal buildings, without any refurbishment or restoration.
“The stench of death follows us everywhere; dozens of families have been killed under their homes, which collapsed over them, as the government had denied us the right to refurbish the homes,” says Mahmoud, one of the oldest residents of the neighborhood.
Another resident, speaking on condition of anonymity, points to the rubble from what used to be his home, recounting to Raseef22 the time in which it fell. He was on his way home from the Friday prayers a week earlier, when he arrives to find his house had collapsed, and himself homeless.
The Roots of the Crisis
The Maspero crisis dates back to ousted President Hosni Mubarak’s tenure, during which his consecutive governments repeatedly pushed for the Maspero Triangle development project, and consequently the evacuation of residents from the area.
Mosbah Hassan, the spokesperson for the Maspero area residents, tells Raseef22 that the conflict began in the late 1990s, under Kamal Ganzouri’s cabinet, and extended into the premiership of Ahmed Nazif, which lasted from 2004 to 2011. At the time, the latter attempted to strike an informal deal with the residents to evacuate the area, however failing to provide them with alternatives.
The buildings began to collapse almost as soon as an order was imposed, prohibiting their restoration. Dozens of deaths ensued on the back of the ban, and the infamous earthquake of 1992 had disastrous consequences in the area, due to the inadequacy of the building conditions.
The conflict was moreover renewed in 2015, after a decree was issued designating the Maspero Triangle area as a redevelopment area, with the purpose of establishing new residential buildings and green spaces in the area.
The project was handed over to the Maspero for Urban Development company, which is jointly owned by the public banks, Banque Misr and the National Bank of Egypt, as well as the state-owned Misr Insurance Co. and its subsidiary, Misr Life Insurance Co.
Further, the Maspero for Urban Development website quotes the chairman as saying that plots of land were acquired in the area, in order to be developed. According to Ahmed Darwish, Deputy Minister of Housing for Urban Development and Slums, in statements to Raseef22, the company has acquired between 10% and 11% of the total area.
Raseef22’s attempts to contact representatives from the company were met by responses that they had no information on this topic, and that it falls under the jurisdiction of Egypt’s Slum Development Fund.
Italian Consulate Bombing
Tensions heightened with the bombing of the nearby Italian Consulate on Galaa Street in July 2015, causing dozens of buildings in the area to partially collapse. Residents resorted to the government to restore their homes, but to no avail.
Hassan says the government has not ceased in its attempts to negotiate with the residents to leave their homes, offering them apartments in the Tal Al-Asmarat area in the Moqattam plateau near Old Cairo, or financial compensation. However, the sums offered would not suffice for the residents to attempt to start anew in a different area.
President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi had promised to eradicate Egypt’s “slum problem” within two years, launching a comprehensive large-scale project to provide the residents of these informal settlements with alternate housing. Among these was the Tal Al-Asmarat project, in which all housing units are scheduled to be delivered to residents within two years.
But Mahmoud and his neighbors are less than satisfied with the monetary compensation they are being offered to move out, particularly after the flotation of the local currency against the US dollar last November, which has slashed the value of the Egyptian pound in half.
“Rent here costs us between two and 10 Egyptian pounds per month, and most of the residents have no income besides their pensions and social security, which amounts to nothing,” Mahmoud notes.
Another resident, Umm Sayed, similarly notes that the prospect of leaving the neighborhood is contingent on receiving sufficient financial compensation.
State Forges On
Deputy Housing Minister Ahmed Darwish tells Raseef22 that the government seeks to develop the project in keeping with its location in the center of Cairo, and to create livable housing conditions.
“We began issuing application forms to locals and land-owning companies, and we were met with major demand,” he adds, noting that the forms will be collected in three weeks, in order to review the applicants for projects in the area.
The government has relied on competitions to award large firms for a masterplan to develop the area. However, the main obstacle, according to Darwish, is that the land is owned by individuals and companies, and not the state.
However, in its competition to select the masterplan, the state did not declare the first place winner, instead announcing the winners of the second place as Foster + Partners, while the third place went to Dar Group and Perkins + Will, and the Italian firm Stefano Boeri.
Districts on the Edge of a Precipice
The issue of attempted forced displacement is not unique to the Maspero Triangle. Minutes away from the area, also along the Nile corniche, stand the Nile City Towers, owned by business tycoon Naguib Sawiris.
On either side of the towers, various upscale high-rise hotels line the corniche, obscuring the run-down district of Boulaq Aboul ‘Ela. Known for its wooden kiosque-like edifices and homes constructed out of scrap metal, its inhabitants have taken up residence there for years in abject poverty.
Several businessmen have attempted to negotiate settlements with the inhabitants to convince them to leave the area, including Naguib Sawiris.
Meanwhile, in Batn El-Baqara, an area in Fatimid Cairo, near the iconic Amr Ibn Al ‘Aas Mosque, sewage threatens the health and safety of the 4,000 families that reside there, on an area of approximately 29 acres.
Residents dispose of their waste in surrounding wells, in an attempt to mitigate the pervasive sewage problem that threatens the foundations of their homes and poses a danger of infectious diseases spreading.
The neighborhood has been designated by the government as one of the most dangerous informal settlements in Cairo, and the most life-threatening, as part of it is built on the precipice of a cliff.
Former governor of Cairo, Galal Saeed, previously said that it would take a year to properly survey the residents of the district, compensate them, and come up with a comprehensive plan for the area.
Meanwhile, as the state forges on with its plans, the fates of thousands of families appear to have been determined without their consultation. It remains to be seen whether they will fall victim to state plans, or their unlivable conditions first.