Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Egypt’s new government has established a ministry dedicated to resolving one of the country’s most pressing problems: the ashwaa’iyya, or slums built haphazardly on former agricultural wasteland. The danger these informal settlements pose has become an increasingly critical issue following the 2011 revolution. Home to millions of Egyptians living in impoverished conditions across Egypt’s major cities, the slums have come to be seen as a refuge for terrorists.
The new department was first dubbed the Ministry for Slums, but then underwent a quick rebranding and is now called the Ministry of Urban Development. Laila Iskander, formerly a minister for environmental affairs, was appointed to the new position of Minister for Urban Development.
Although accurate figures are hard to come by, the estimated number of slums in Egypt ranges between 1300 and 1750, and accommodating as many as 15 million Egyptians. The government-affiliated Information and Decision Support Center found that by February 2013, the area covered by slums accounted for 37.5 percent of the total area of 226 Egyptian cities. Their report also stated that slums are divided into unplanned settlements, accounting for approximately 97 percent of the area, with the remaining 3 percent classified as unsafe areas.
Manal Al-Tibi, director of the Egyptian Center for Housing Rights, believes that the establishment of the new ministry is a “positive step,” as officials have finally acknowledged that the slums pose a major problem. At the same time, she fears that the ministry’s main mission will be improving the image of the slums rather than developing them: “My fear begins with the name change of the Ministry to [the Ministry of] Urban Development. I’m worried that the ministry’s mission will be limited to the appearance of these slums, rather than related to everything that concerns these kinds of areas. I believe that development is not only about the development of buildings, but of people too.”
But many other Egyptians are hopeful that the ministry will be able to improve these areas, through either complete demolition, construction or renovation. The current government of Egyptian Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab may take more initiative than its predecessors, as the premier comes from a civil engineering background and worked for the Arab Contractors company for many years.
“However,” cautions Tibi, “I’m afraid that the inhabitants of these slums will be forced to leave their homes for the sake of development.” She believes that the issue of informal shelter is linked to the bigger problem that is Egypt’s decades-old housing policies. “There must be a holistic view of the housing issue, because this crisis will only be solved through a complete strategy that is aware of the reasons for the existence of these slums.”
According to official reports, work to redevelop 143 slums is already underway, while another 195 are ready to be redeveloped but work has not yet begun. There are a further 26 areas that are being cleared of inhabitants.
Some of the most notorious slums, such as Kafr Nassar, Azbat Jibril and Kafr Arab in Giza, are being developed, as is Kerdasa, where 14 police officers were killed when militants stormed their station in August 2013. These slums have not only gained notoriety for crime and terrorism: they have also suffered natural disasters, such as the 2008 rockslide that killed dozens of people in the Duwayqa district.
Soon after that tragedy, the Slums Development Fund was established to help regenerate these areas. But according to former MP Abdul Hamid Kamal, the fund’s work stalled soon after its launch. Kamal explains that “it failed to achieve the success we hoped it would over the past years because there was no plan when it was created and there were no technical studies conducted to support the development of slums.”
But there were some success stories. “Some of the plans that were implemented in the past, such as the development of the Arab Al-Muhammadi slum, which is located on the fringes of Cairo in the Ain Shams area . . . have transformed the region into a habitable area. It was [carefully] planned, and there are even gardens,” Kamal explains. The governor of Giza, Ali Abdul Rahman, also said that through cooperation with the Slum Development Fund the province has been able to develop 13 slum areas.
Kamal argues that the development of slums “requires a plan that involves the government, housing associations, businessmen and the General Union of Cooperative Housing, as long as this union constructs buildings for the needy in accordance with its role and doesn’t build luxury or mid-level buildings.”
But the task has become increasingly insurmountable in the last three years of political turmoil. Kamal says that “between the January 25  revolution and today, Egypt has witnessed an increase in the number of slums because of the absence of state control,” in addition to migration from the countryside to the city, which has been ongoing for decades.
The redevelopment of the slums does come as part of a wider program adopted by President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi that will see the re-demarcation of provincial boundaries and the creation of new provinces, which could help in relieving the overcrowding in cities along the narrow strip of the Nile Valley.
However, it is proving difficult to persuade people to move to alternative housing in new cities outside Cairo and Giza, such as Abur, Shorouk, Badr and Sixth of October City. Mohammed Al-Azzabi, the founder of the October 6 Party, stated that despite protests from those who live in the slums, “it has become imperative on all of us to move out to more spacious areas so that we can make the most of undeveloped territory in Egypt, even if that means forcing people to move out to new places.”
Kamal hasn’t lost all hope for the fund: “I think that the social housing being built by the army and the 1 million housing units project,” which is being implemented by the UAE in cooperation with the Egyptian Army, “could reduce the number of slums as long as the state stops supporting luxury housing projects and compounds, and imposes progressive taxes on large units for the sake of the Slum Development Fund.”
He highlighted that the danger of allowing slums to continue to exist is that “they spawn a number of terrorists, and that is where those religious groups that produce extremists are active. A good example is the “Arab Sharaks,” slum where a group of terrorists were able to hide and get together an arsenal of weapons before the authorities were able to detect any activity.”
And this is far from a self-contained threat on the fringes of society. The report by the Information Center pointed out that the most unsafe slum in Cairo is located in Maspero, in the heart of the capital. The slum is close to both Tahrir Square and Abdel Moneim Riad square.
Cairo governorate stated that there are approximately 284,000 people living in “unsafe” housing, and they require 42,000 new housing units—15,000 of which have already been built. The cost of Cairo’s slum development projects is over 1 billion Egyptian pounds (140 million US dollars).
However, the governor of Cairo, Galal Mostafa Saeed, has said that Cairo needs 6 to 7 billion pounds to resolve the problem. He suggested there should be a plan or a state pledge to get rid of the slums within a five-year period. Saeed believes that it is the most pressing issue the province faces and he supports the idea that it is a “state issue” and not a “government issue.”
But Dalia Magdy, the head of the Egyptian Conference Party’s media committee, believes that slums are a national issue and that “there must be a strong interest in this matter because reforming the slums is in the interest of the state.” She said the slums have become a breeding ground for corruption, which feeds extremism. “The country will not develop if the situation remains as it is, as long as Egypt is home to palaces for the rich and shacks for the poor.”
Magdy stated that if real attention is paid to the issue of slums, then within five years “there will be significant improvement in dealing with this problem as long as . . . there is real work taking place on the ground rather than just holding closed meetings during which officials discuss the issue for several hours and then each one goes his own way without there being any tangible results.”
The formation of the new ministry for slums created a stir among political parties and civil society organizations. Azzabi praised the establishment of a specialized ministry to tackle the issue: “Egypt has lacked this expertise in solving problems for the past sixty years, and the state had to begin establishing actual administrations to end the problem of slums through the setting up of a specialist body, which in this case is the Ministry of the Urban Development and Slums.” But he warned that “it must work with the utmost transparency and neutrality.”
However, the Slum Development Fund is achieving less than originally hoped despite the increase in funds allocated to it over the last year. The report by the Information and Decision Support Center stated that the funds allocated as part of the 2013–2014 plan to develop approximately 67 unsafe slums increased to 400 million Egyptian pounds. In comparison, 300 million pounds had been allocated the previous year for the development of 68 unsafe areas.
Azzabi explained that although many of the slums have become increasingly unsafe, the issue is moving up politicians’ agendas after it came to light that slums were harboring terrorists. “A long time ago, there was the ‘Emirate of Imbaba,’” he said, referring to a Cairo slum where Islamic extremists declared a state within a state in the early 1990s. Today we have regions famous for the horrific events that took place, such as the killing of police officers in Kerdasa, Giza. The state has been physically unable to reach such places because of the narrow streets and being unable to get equipment into those areas, this poses a major threat to Egyptian national security.”