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In Cairo, Makeshift Slums v. Government Housing Project

The two-year-old housing project is clean and orderly, unlike the makeshift dwellings its thousands of relocated residents left behind. But it's also isolated and dull.

Government-built Al Asmarat neighborhood in Cairo, Egypt
Government-built Al Asmarat neighborhood in Cairo, Egypt
Mostafa Mohie

CAIRO — As the public bus approaches the main gate of Asmarat on Street 9 in Cairo's Mokattam district, a police officer and two security guards appear. The bus goes through the manually operated boom barrier uninterrupted. Passengers of private cars and taxicabs, however, are questioned about their destinations, and some drivers are asked to open their trunks for inspection.

Identical residential buildings line the left side of the road, all the exact same height and design. Halfway up the side of each are the words Tahya Masr ("long live Egypt"), in bold colors. Tahya Masr, a slogan that gained traction during President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's 2014 campaign, is also the official name of the city, though it is better known by the name Asmarat.

There is very little on the main road to indicate that the area is inhabited. It is only near the end, where the road curves left, we begin to see some signs of life. Before that curve, another pedestrian gate on the right side of the road connects Asmarat to the nearby residential district of Masaken al-Zilzal. People who lost their homes in the 1992 earthquake were relocated there, creating a lively residential spot that bustles with commercial activity, and where Asmarat residents head to find vegetables, fruits, meats and other needs.

At the curve, the bus begins to make its stops by the various residential blocks. The identical blocks have individual names —Fardous ("paradise"), Yasmeen ("jasmine"), Gawhara ("jewel") — that seem both arbitrary and incongruous. They're not the only thing residents struggle to make sense of. Indeed, everything about the place is unfamiliar, even foreign.

Quiet and cut off

Financed by the Tahya Masr philanthropic fund, which Sisi launched in 2014 with a call for Egyptians to donate for the country's development, the Asmarat housing project is being built by the Cairo Governorate and the Armed Forces Engineering Authority. Sisi inaugurated the first and second phases of the project in June 2016. Once the third phase is completed, by the end of the year, the housing project will contain some 20,000 residential units in total.

The purpose of Asmarat is to relocate and rehouse residents of Greater Cairo's self-built housing districts, impoverished, decrepit areas that authorities consider "hazardous'. Since its inauguration, nearly 10,000 families from the Maspero Triangle, Manshiyet Nasser, Duweiqa, Ezbet Khairallah and Establ Antar areas have relocated to the new housing project, where they were each assigned a furnished residential unit. These families were identified by a technical committee assembled by the Cairo Governorate following a landslide in 2007 in the Duweiqa area.

Everything about the place is unfamiliar, even foreign.

Families have been granted housing in Asmarat through different arrangements. For example, families evicted from the Maspero Triangle, which is currently undergoing a major development project overseen by the Informal Settlements Development Fund in cooperation with the Cairo Governorate, were given the option of going to Asmarat, where they were offered deeds and residential units for 300 Egyptian pounds ($17) per month.

Residents of other "hazardous districts' have been offered usufruct contracts for their Asmarat units, for which they also have to pay 300 pounds. These contracts expire after the death of the head of the household. In many cases, families who have lived in Asmarat since 2016 have yet to receive copies of their contracts.

Some families complained about the 300-pound rent, and organized protests within the housing project earlier this year, withholding their rent payments in objection. In response, the municipality issued eviction notices to a number of residents in April. Later, police arrested 12 Asmarat residents and accused them of participating in an illegal protest. And on May 30, a court sentenced all of the defendants to two years in prison.

Mahmoud, who is married and has five children, was forced out of his house in Manshiyet Nasser and relocated to Asmarat. He now faces the threat of expulsion because his 300-pound rent has accumulated into 22 months worth of debt. "How can I support my children when I only make 70 pounds ($4) a day? In government housing in Badr and Masakan Othman in 6th of October City, a satellite town about 30 kilometers outside Cairo, rent doesn't exceed 80 pounds ($4.50). We come from the "slums," as they say. How can they ask us to pay 300 pounds a month? Do you want me to become a thief?" he asks.

Some members of Parliament have tried to demand that the government lower the rent value in Asmarat and offer those in debt the option of paying their debt in installments.

There's nowhere to walk to.

In addition to the relatively high monthly rent residents have to pay, the units in Asmarat are nothing like the homes where they used to live. Their old neighborhoods are lively, with high foot traffic and lots of vendors. In Asmarat, the wide streets and passageways were silent. Here, there are no shops, no workshops and no ahwas (tea and coffee shops), and therefore no natural movement of people between these spots.

Nor are there any trees to protect pedestrians from the summer sun, so barely anyone walks anywhere. Even if they did, there's nowhere to walk to — except to the outside of the city.

"If you need to buy something, you have to go all the way down to the old market in Mokattam. There are no shops here, and the few that do exist close by 5 p.m. at the latest," says Zeinab, a woman in her 40s who recently moved to Asmarat from the Maspero Triangle.

Those "shops' that Zeinab refers to are outlets through which the Armed Forces and Ministry of Interior sell consumer goods. These are located on the eastern edge of Asmarat, next to the main school, but far from most of the residential blocks. They sell frozen meats and fish, which Zeinab prefers not to buy. Instead, she relies on the markets in Masaken al-Zilzal.

Professional spaces

Approximately 140 shops were built into the different residential blocks as part of the first two phases of Asmarat, but so far, none of them have opened for business. Municipal employees told Asmarat residents that the shops would be sold later at a public auction. While these shops could have provided local residents convenient employment, a public auction would not work in their favor.

Zeinab, for example, had been living off a shop back in the Maspero Triangle, alongside her mother and older brother. She couldn't replace it in Asmarat, where she was assigned alternative housing.

Ibrahim has a similar story. He works as a mechanic, but does not have a workshop in the new city. A demolition order was issued for his house in Manshiyet Nasser, so he moved to Masaken Othman in 6th of October City in 2014. But life in the remote Masaken Othman was not convenient for most of its residents. Ibrahim, among others, requested to be relocated to Asmarat, which, at almost an hour away from his old home in Manshiyet Nasser by public transportation, is closer to central Cairo than 6th of October City. He was assigned an Asmarat residential unit in 2014, but he remains without a space to practice his profession.

On the sidewalk by his building, Ibrahim sits with his tools around him, fixing a motorcycle for another resident. His market shrunk significantly since he relocated from Manshiyet Nasser, where the principal means of transportation are tuk tuks and small vans, locally referred to as tumnayas. He made a living fixing these vehicles. However, transportation within Asmarat is exclusively offered by governorate buses that carry residents to just outside the gates of the city or farther down to Manshiyet Nasser and downtown's Abdel Moneim Riyadh Square, among other places.

The new city remains far and disconnected from its residents' source of income. Sheikh Sayed works as a dry cleaner in Imbaba. He was a resident of the self-built housing neighborhood of Duweiqa before a demolition order was issued for his house and he was relocated to Asmarat. Now he has no choice but go all the way to Imbaba, on the other side of the city, which only puts a further strain on his budget.

Other Asmarat residents try to find alternatives to the daily trip to distant places. On of them is Eid, whose old house, in Duweiqa, was ordered to be demolished. Now housed in a ground-floor apartment, it occurred to him to make use of his location, so he bought some goods — mainly sweets and groceries — and stocked them in his apartment. Now he deals to customers through his balcony.

Eid had a government job and a second job at a café. In 2016, he was retired from his government job and left with nothing but a severance pay of 12,000 pounds ($670) and a monthly pension of 900 pounds ($50). After he was moved to Asmarat, in mid-2017, he was no longer able to continue working at the café. Selling goods from his balcony became the only option for him. But in August of that year, municipal authorities raided the makeshift shop, confiscating Eid's goods and threatening to evict him if he resumed his commercial activity.

The next day, Eid bought another batch of goods, and he still sells goods from his balcony.

Like Eid, Nagat also uses her balcony as an outlet to sell products. She recounts how one of the residents started selling ful (fava beans) and belila (wheat porridge) on a cart, only to have it confiscated by the municipal employees and the food spilled out on the sand.

Asmarat challenges informality. No activity may alter the designated functions of the various areas of the neighborhood. A home should not be turned into a shop. Dedicated shops, not carts, should be used to sell food. Only government busses, not tuk-tuks or vans, should be used for transportation within the neighborhood.

Asmarat is also a high-security area. Residents say that control measures used to be even stricter. When the project was first launched, guests were required to identify their hosts before they were granted entry. Sometimes, residents were required to come to the main gate to escort their guests in. As time passed and more families moved into the neighborhood in 2016, measures became increasingly lax. The gate is left unattended in the daytime, the residents say, and people make it through now without being asked about their destinations.

And while the relatively tight grip of the government on the neighborhood is maintained, its sheer presence opens up a space for constant negotiation with the residents, whose quest is to make the quarter livable, and not simply to conform to the government's idea of how it should work.

Uniformity and resistance

Still, not everything is up for negotiation. There's no changing the very urban design of the neighborhood, for one thing. Asmarat is made up of lines of residential blocks. Each block comprises 10 residential buildings, which may be more or fewer depending on the design of each block. Each building is six floors high. And each houses 62-square-meter apartments, all in the same design.

Each apartment, furthermore, has two bedrooms, one small living room, a kitchen and a bathroom. One of the bedrooms has a large bed, the other two single beds. In the living room, there are four dining chairs and a three-piece living room set (a two-seater and two chairs). Everything is made for a perfect family of two parents and two children, even though most families that relocated to Asmarat don't fit that mold.

In their original districts, these families built their homes differently, custom designing them to suit their needs. This was possible because many of them claimed the lands on which they lived, despite the government challenging the legality of their ownership. Accordingly, they built their houses the way they wanted and, over the years, stories upon stories would be added to each house as the family living in it grew. Zeinab's three-story family home in the Maspero Triangle had 12 rooms, for example, some of which were separate rooms and others were sealed within apartments. In most homes, bathrooms and kitchens were shared.

In Asmarat, extended families are divided into nuclear families, each occupying a separate unit with no shared spaces. "The doors to our apartments were open at all times," says Zeinab of her old home in the Maspero Triangle. "The doors to our rooms were open at all times. That was how people stayed in touch with each other."

Here, apartments are readily and identically furnished, and so there is no place for furniture from the old homes, though in some cases families were able to smuggle in certain items. Nagat hid a sofa under the piles of clothes that the family brought on a large pickup truck. She snuck in her refrigerator the same way.

This is our city now, and we should be respectful, not wreck it or litter.

In the summer, families often spend their evenings hanging out on the sidewalks between buildings or on the main street. People removed parts of the fence surrounding a closed park and football field to allow children to make use of them. The children even turned the goal net into a swing. When winter comes, these gatherings and activities shift to daylight hours.

Yet, despite reservations about how housing is planned here, and despite some subversive acts disrupting its orderliness and neatness, many people told Mada Masr that Asmarat is a "nice district" that offers "civilized housing." And some Asmarat residents fear that practices like fence breaking and furniture smuggling may lead to the reproduction of what they describe as the "slum life" that prevailed in the districts they came from.

"This project was an attempt to improve people's lives by moving them to a somewhat better place," says Bakr, an Asmarat resident who works at a state-owned newspaper. "The law must be enforced strictly and without leniency. And people should be prepared emotionally for how they should behave in nice, civilized places. This is our city now, and we should be respectful, not wreck it or litter."

Bakr is often annoyed by the noise made by children playing on the street, the fights and verbal altercations that erupt every now and then, and the destruction of the fences around the park and the football field. Sheikh Sayed complains too — about the family gatherings on the streets, which extend late into the night.

But others feel that by moving to Asmarat they lost their sense of freedom and independence. Ibrahim, the mechanic, says the walls encircling Asmarat makes him feel like he's in an "open-air prison," or a "zoo." He's uneasy with the predetermined order of things people are required to accept. But what grieves him most is the decades-long investment his family poured into the construction and development of their Manshiyet Nasser home, which he owned but then lost — without adequate compensation. "We are just tenants now," Ibrahim says. "Our life work was all for nothing."

Back in Duweiqa, Eid says that he spent three days sleeping in the mosque to avoid seeing the demolition of his home, on which he spent approximately 200,000 pounds ($11,000) over the past few decades.

Leaving at Asmarat, at night, the trip to the outside world feels longer than it does in the daytime. Public buses that go downtown don't take a direct route, but rather make several turns on the way to their final destinations, making the massive housing project feel even more distant and isolated.

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