A true transition to democracy should lead to strong local and municipal governments not reproduce a centralized system led by a strong president or even parliament.
Will Egypt’s parliamentary elections bring the change needed or simply rebuild a defunct system of government?
Cairo is a city of 20 million without a mayor, without a municipality and without an effective city government that represents its inhabitants. At the final metro stop on the Giza line is an informal neighborhood sandwiched between the metro tracks and a water canal. Mounib was once a village outside Giza on the road heading south towards Aswan.
Today, Mounib is part of the informal urban sprawl spawned by government negligence and lack of planning. In some respects, Mounib is a relatively successful informal area: The buildings are well built with a maximum of six levels allowing sun and air to penetrate most residences, and there is a tightly-knit community. Living here is not cheap; the average home costs its owners nearly 50,000 Egyptian pounds (about $8,370), yet residents lead a precarious life and their fate is uncertain. Inhabitants in informal areas live at the mercy of the construction mafia, who build illegally with the discreet approval of bribed local government officials.
Running through this dense urban area is the Zumor Canal, which once irrigated rich agricultural land. No longer used for irrigation, water has become stagnant, and with the government’s refusal to manage waste in areas such as Mounib, the canal has transformed into a trash dump and a source of disease and infestation. Further north, where the canal passes through middle-class neighborhoods, it has been filled and transformed into a green spine. Here, like the majority of Cairo, residents police themselves. A total informal way of life pervades that includes schooling, healthcare, food supply and social services. People here are friendly and welcoming and they know what needs to be done to better their community, but there are no channels for them to officially take part in civil society and government. Although this area is part of the capital and is reached by metro, it is at the periphery of the regime’s concerns. In Mounib, nothing has improved since Hosni Mubarak passed his presidential powers to the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF).
The local government officials responsible for this area are the same as before the January 25 revolution that deposed Mubarak, despite a recent court ruling to dissolve local councils. Residents consider local government as window dressing rather than an effective mechanism to better their lives, and the government institution as a whole is viewed as better avoided. Those local government officials form the base of an administrative pyramid that leads to a presidentially appointed governor at the top. Administratively, Cairo is a divided city split into three governorates each with a governor and an army of bureaucracy below him. Governor posts are reserved to former army and police officers, typically at the age of retirement.
Read rest of the Op-ed on AlJazeera, here.
This is a follow-up to a previous post on Mounib. Click here for maps and more images.
Al-Zumor Canal was once part of Cairo’s extensive canal system that carried Nile water to vast stretches of rich agricultural land that surrounded the city. Much of that land has been urbanized with informal housing over the last forty years. Some canals that once watered agricultural lands have transformed into stagnant open sewers and cesspools bisecting dense urban areas. The canal begins south of Cairo on the west bank and heads north where it once formed the western edge of the city. Al-Zumor today manifests itself in different ways depending on the area the canal once passed through, in some parts it has been transformed into a street carrying the same name, in others it has been filled and transformed into a grassy zone, while in others it collects trash. The fate of the canal in different parts of Cairo depends on who lives around it: when it passes through the edge of the “formal” Giza district; it is a pleasant grassy area in the middle of a wide road. However further south, where it passes through poor “informal” areas, it is left to residents to deal with the smell and disease festering in its stagnant water.
At the southern edge of Cairo and at the beginning of the canal was once the village of Mounib. Now urbanized, Mounib is sandwiched between the metro tracks on the east and the canal on the west. It is a relatively successful informal area with apartment buildings of four to five floors and a tightly knit community. Although the area had some water, electricity and sewer systems supplying the former village, those systems did not cope with the urban growth of the last three decades. Most buildings wait an average of six years after they are built and inhabited before local government supplies necessary utilities and recognize the new properties by supplying street names and numbers.
This is the story of so-called informal housing in Cairo: residents build their own property to house increasing numbers of residents. The continuing depreciation of agricultural land and the lack of state planned areas for lower and medium income housing transformed villages into dense urban areas. Lacking from these areas are proper utilities, services, transport, public space, and work opportunities. Despite these disadvantages, residents in such areas pay the highest prices for their homes and still they live under the threat that local government can confiscate their technically illegal properties if the right pockets are not lined with cash from time to time.
Residents in Mounib are eager to speak with outsiders; their primary complaint is the canal. They’ve tried repeatedly with no avail to have authorities clean the canal or fill it as was done further upstream. One resident said that even though her family spent all they own to build their home, they must leave it because life with the stench of the canal and the mosquitoes is unbearable. Others spoke about how the government had banned local trash collectors from working while bringing a European trash collection company. That company was only in the area for a brief time and since then there has been no system or organized method for collecting waste, making the canal the only alternative. The official answer from authorities regarding why the canal hasn’t been filled in Mounib as it was elsewhere is that “they are nas nedeefah (high class) over there.” It seems that was enough for some residents as a legitimate explanation.
Classist and racist connotations, which originated within a colonial context, have been fully adopted by many within Egyptian society. Cairo’s middle and upper classes are willing to live within class bubbles separate from the rest while Cairo’s urban poor have become immune to classist attitudes directed at them by the upper classes and by the state.
Moreover local officials and building contractors hold Mounib residents hostage, like those in other informal areas. In addition to the below-standard living conditions, residents pay high prices to build their homes. Part of the inflated price goes to line pockets of local officials who won’t pursue evicting or fining residents so long as they work with the right contractor who has established relationships with officials. What are superficially viewed as ad-hock informal areas, are in fact the product of a well establish highly corrupt system where the city’s poorest pay the most and get the least while the richest get sweet land deals, privileges, and priority. Just across the metro tracks, is a large Nile-front walled property with trees and palms that people from the area claim to be owned by a Saudi businessman, others added it may have been a gift from Gamal Mubarak.
While the canal remains stagnant, residents must live with it. And while they own their “informal” homes, they risk being evicted, sentenced to jail or fined by local officials, leading to a life of insecurity. At the same time in 2001 a highway overpass was constructed that blocked two lanes of the Cairo-Aswan road, the southern threshold into Giza. The overpass cost 92 million pounds and passes above homes leading to an empty land. Residents said that the land was worth ten pounds per meter but now a decade later and with a direct connection from the main road the value of the same land has sky rocketed one hundred fold. The overpass was built with state money to benefit private interests while the canal affecting the lives of thousands is left untouched.
In Mounib the same local officials are still in place. The contractors who monopolize the area are still as powerful as ever. Despite the difficulties, residents are proud hardworking people who may not have had an education or access to healthcare. Those residents know that the conditions in which they live are substandard and they know what needs to be done. They have lived under a state that hasn’t treated all Egyptians as equal. The revolution has not touched Mounib and the view from here reveals that the regime has not fallen.
بين ترعة الزمر و مترو المنيب
The final metro stop at Mounib on the west bank of the Nile south of Giza is the beginning of the Cairo Aswan Road. It is one of the many areas that witnessed an increase in informal development over the last decade. I don’t like the word “informal” because it comes from a perspective that assumes that its antithesis, formal, is superior.
Over %65 of Cairo’s inhabitants live in informal areas: “extralegal urban development processes that first appeared around 1950, and they exhibit complete lack of urban planning or building control.” That is the latest definition and it belongs to David Sims.
Anyhow, this is not a post about Informalities in general but rather about a very particular “neighborhood” sandwiched between the tracks of the Metro and one of Cairo’s old canals, al-Zumor. The neighborhood is all residential, the streets are not paved but there are hardly any cars which means it is very quiet and not polluted. However, like all informal areas, basic utilities were not installed here until 5-6 years after buildings were built and families moved in. The buildings are modest 4-6 story apartment blocks. As it is typical of informal areas, the buildings follow agricultural property lines and so there is a grid of streets that connects the little neighborhood’s two edges, the straight wall bordering the metro tracks on the east side and the Zumor canal on the west.
In the picture above you can see the parade of repeated “formal” housing towers on the other side of the track versus that much more communal, human-scaled, self-built “informal” housing to the left of the picture.
For me this is an example of a successful informal housing community, however I am not trying to romanticize the situation, there are some problems that need state/city government intervention:
waste management and utilities: Egyptians can self organize and build their own concrete and brick houses but somethings such as utilities and sewage simply cannot be self-organized. And the state drags its feet on these matters. There is no proper waste management or trash collection system (like most of Cairo), but so much of the waste ends up in the Zumor canal.
Zumor Canal: one of the many old canals that brought Nile water to agricultural land. The canal has lost its purpose since most of the land it used to supply has been urbanized. The government already began filling the canal and paving a road in its place with a grassy area in the middle. However this process has only been done further north where the urban fabric is more formal and the canal remains uncovered and stagnant once it enters dense “informal” areas. This is a clear act of favoritism and demonstrates that not all Cairenes were ever treated as equal. Filling the canal is a relatively cheap project that will help these dense popular neighborhoods tremendously. currently the canal is more of an open sewer which is unsightly, and unhealthy. When I asked residents what would they like to see done first in their neighborhood, the answer was unanimously asking for the canal to be treated or filled.
Here you can clearly see the massive amount of trash that is collected in the canal in a spot where a street crosses. This scene is repeated at every street crossing which have blocked the flow of water, this has transformed the canal into a series of cesspools. Two hundred years ago, in Muhammad Ali’s Cairo, this would not have been acceptable, yet it is an accepted norm today. The locals don’t have alternatives, the government ignores, and the educated elite happily look the other way and choose to block such sites from their mental map of the city.
At the center of this image (the straight wide north-south avenue) is the very same canal further north as it passes through a formal area. The Canal was the western-most edge of the planned districts of Giza, Dokki and Muhandeseen. The government has filled in parts of the canal, pumped the water and created a wide street with a grassy spine down the center. The portion of the canal passing exclusively through informal areas is left uncovered.
Back to the sliver of a community sandwiched between an old canal and metro tracks: above is a typical street. This quiet, peaceful community has managed to exist in spite of lack of planning and it attempts to flourish today despite of continuing ill-informed state policies. Walking around is perfectly safe even though not a single police man is anywhere near here, an instant reminder that the police in Egypt isn’t what creates the sense of security but usually the opposite. The residents here, like in most popular neighborhoods, self-police just like they self-build.
There is a nice combination of village and city life. People seem to know each other. Women sit on the stoops and have conversations. Men sit at a coffee shop ahwa under the shade of trees. This is a nice place, not because of its brick (stones) but because of its people.
The residents are typically friendly and full of smiles and they have done so much on their own but now the state or other agencies have an opportunity to extend a helping hand to make this community even a little better by: providing basic services and opening schools near by, by paving streets and planting trees (although residents have already tried to create green spaces, create workshops or a vocational school where residents can learn a skill and make a living without having to go far from home, work with the community to develop methods of urban agriculture to build on the area’s agricultural origin and allow the community to provide itself with some of its food needs, create open and green spaces, and most importantly confront the canal and waste situation.
The community around Mounib provides a great opportunity to show in post-revolution Egypt that informal areas are not always the nightmares that the Mubarak gang made them out to be (in favor of mass relocation programs and property speculation), and that some informal communities can act as models for other areas.