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A question of trust
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 26 - 02 - 2009

The government says it wants a cleaner, greener, better Cairo by the year 2050. Yet, it still has a long way to go in getting people to trust in its designs, writes Dena Rashed
Envision Cairo, well-planned, green, with neat and ordered streets. This is a dream that many Cairenes want to live for real. While the city has been growing bigger by the day, the population reaching 17 million, buildings getting ever larger and the streets ever narrower, many miss what used to be the comparatively well-organised pace of city life that existed as recently as a few decades ago. Despite Cairo's unique character, it is hard to deny that the city has become almost suffocating.
As a result, every couple of years grand schemes are announced to revamp the city, and this year is no exception, with the Ministry of Housing announcing its latest long-term plan for what Cairo could look like in 2050. The plan is, to say the least, ambitious. Yet, the question that needs to be asked is how applicable it is, when one considers that it involves reshaping places that are already over-populated.
According to Minister of Housing Ahmed El-Maghrabi, the plan includes 15 metro lines and two new railway stations in Greater Cairo alone, and according to the chairman of the General Organisation for Physical Planning (GOPP) at the ministry, Mustafa Madbouli, it aims to redistribute the city's population and to create 50,000 feddans of green space inside the city, moving industry to the outskirts. "In Cairo, each citizen has only 30cm2 of green space. According to international standards the minimum should be 12m2," Madbouli told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The ministry's plan also involves building 1,000km of new roads and redeveloping the area around the Egyptian Radio and Television Building. Part of the scheme includes developing the area around the ministries in Downtown Cairo as a cultural district and building more multi-storey garages to cope with the chronic problem of parking in the capital. "Cairo needs surgery," Madbouli explains, "and we are working on everything at the same time."
More work needs to be done on planned areas like Maadi and Zamalek that once had their own strict building codes. In the 1970s these codes fell by the wayside, with people starting to sell their villas as a result to benefit from the money that could be made from building high-rise apartment blocks. "Many areas were destroyed as a result," Madbouli says, "but the law passed last year has now specified a new code for each area and the catastrophe will stop."
Work will also be done on historic Cairo under the scheme, he says, with plans to turn the Al-Sayeda Zeinab, Ataba, Al-Azhar, Al-Hussein and Abdine neighbourhoods into museum districts. Historic squares throughout the Downtown area will be redeveloped. "We have the Pyramids, the greatest monuments in the world, yet there are shantytowns around them," Madbouli explains. "We have a third of the world's monuments, and we are not utilising them. Why don't we open roads to make the Pyramids visible from a distance? Why don't we make use of Khedival or Islamic Cairo by restoring the buildings, constructing promenades and giving these districts a new function that will revive them and the old city centre of which they are a part?"
Madbouli's speech consists of many such questions. What is really needed, he suggests, is a masterplan that will transform the city, and he gives an example of the ministry's ideas for Giza that involve cutting through Gameat Al-Dowal Al-Arabiya Street, the main thoroughfare through Mohandessin, in order to access the low-income district of Boulaq Al-Dakrour. This would allow a better view of the Pyramids, he says, and would also stimulate the construction of a garden and shops and services for tourists.
The ministry's grand scheme has similarly ambitious ideas for the other side of Cairo beyond the Islamic city. The cemetery areas off Salah Salem Street, for example, are being examined, with plans afoot to turn them into a kind of park. The 100,000 or so people currently living in the area would be provided with housing in the capital's new satellite cities. This would be controversial, but Madbouli sees little real alternative. "Either we remove houses in already populated areas, or in others that are not populated enough. Inside the city there are only two areas where we can build more parks, in the cemetery areas or on the Nile islands of Al-Dahab and Al-Warraq."
Madbouli says that people are currently reluctant to visit the monuments in the cemetery areas due to problems of over- population. "Do we want a continuation of the problems afflicting the cemetery areas, including habitation issues, drug problems and security issues," he asks. However, is the financial and societal cost of convincing people to move their families' remains from the cemeteries, not to mention moving the current residents, really worth the gains that Madbouli describes? Madbouli would say yes, arguing that Cairo deserves more and better parks, such that future generations can enjoy more green space.
However, though controversial the ministry's plans for the cemetery areas are dwarfed by its scheme to reuse the already quite heavily populated Nile islands of Al-Warraq and Al-Dahab as public parks. When current residents of the islands -- Al-Dahab alone, an island of around 400 feddans, is inhabited by some 4,000-5,000 people who depend on small cultivation and raising cattle -- were told about the plans, they shook their heads, citing memories of previous schemes to turn the island into a kind of green haven in the Nile. On his shaky ferry, Salem Abdullah, 27, confesses he is wary of the government's plans. "If the government decides to do something, they usually don't give up. But we are like fish living in water. If you take us off our island, then we will die."
Ali Abdel-Meguid, 40, a resident of Al-Dahab who raises cattle, is similarly concerned. Those living on the island already suffer from poor living conditions, he says, adding that "we don't have a school, a hospital, or a clinic, but we accept our destiny. We want the government to leave us alone." Abdel-Meguid says that every couple of years the government announces new plans for the island, sometimes without telling the residents. According to the latter, they have legal ownership of the land and have been living there for generations. "We have not just squatted on this island," Abdel-Meguid says. "On the contrary, many of us have inherited the land from our ancestors. The government tends to release rumours and test reactions to future projects. However, we are against all its plans," he adds.
In front of a small brick house on the island three women of different ages sit and explain something about their lives. According to Um Karima, there are no antenatal services on the island, so when her baby was due she had to rush to get to a clinic on the shore. However, it was too late, she says, and she "had to have the baby in the open air." The three women acknowledge that they are living without many of the necessities of life, but nevertheless they all want to maintain the status quo.
"We don't have a government-subsidised bakery, so we bake our own bread at home. We don't cost the government anything," says Um Arafa. One of the women was quite aggressive in her characterisation of the government's plans. "When they thought about getting rid of us before, we waited for the security forces to arrive and drove them out with stones," she says. Many of the island's residents are used to media attention, since a previous government in 1999 also had plans for the island, and the former minister of housing, Mohamed Suleiman, also announced government plans for investment on the island. Yet on this occasion too, the island's residents protested against the plans, which later were halted.
Not everyone, however, is as hostile. According to Naima Said, a mother of three children, many residents would be willing to leave "if they paid us proper compensation. I can't stand living here myself, since we don't have running water, and I have to fetch water every day." Said says she also has great difficulties sending her children to school on the other side of the Nile. If it is windy, she makes them stay at home since she does not trust the antiquated ferry that goes from the island to the shore.
Other residents have equally nuanced views. At his office in the island's church, Rizq Ghali, whose father was the village's sheikh al-balad or headman, expresses his loyalty to the island. "We were raised here, and we have learned that one has to have loyalty to one's home. However, we don't really know in whose interest it is to change the island." Ghali says that one problem was that people in general did not realise that the island was self-sufficient and that its resources benefited the city areas around. "We have fertile land, and people cultivate vegetables here of good quality," he says.
Regarding the government's offer of compensation were the residents to be moved, Abdel-Meguid seems uncomprehending, asking how he would raise cattle in an apartment. Other residents said they could not live in flats, since they were villagers who had to live close to the land. One woman claims that the authorities had taken a piece of land from her when building the Moneib bridge that crosses the island. "But I only got half the money that was due to me, and I never saw the rest," she says.
When told about the residents' objections, Madbouli asks another rhetorical question. "Is it reasonable that there is still a village in the heart of Cairo," he asks. It is true that both islands are officially protected areas, but this will not save them from development, he adds. Illegal development will take place despite the law, and in his view it would be better to recognise this and turn the islands into parks, rather than wait for the inevitable development to take place. The residents of the islands will eventually be prevailed upon to sell their lands, as happened in the past in the formerly agricultural areas of Boulaq and Imbaba, Madbouli contended. This would be the worst of all, since the city would lose agricultural areas, but would not gain parkland to replace them.
At the moment, the ministry has only announced its plans for the islands as part of a public consultation exercise. It has no fixed vision for the islands, Madbouli says. Present ideas include a park, or a park combined with a hotel or resort. "In Aswan, there is a beautiful island that hosts the Isis Hotel. Why not have something similar here," he asks. In his view, such a development would only be following in the footsteps of previous generations of Cairenes, who created the Orman park and the Giza Zoo. Had they not done so, Madbouli says, these areas would "have probably been used for informal housing." Were they wrong in their plans, Madbouli asks, or "are we wrong in not doing the same and instead trying to keep the city exactly as it is?"
Artist Mohamed Abla, who has been living on the island for the past 14 years told the Weekly that he had an idea to develop the land. "I suggested that the government help the peasants start planting flowers instead of their traditional crops. This way they will have better incomes and the city people will enjoy the island as well."
Abla argues that all Egyptians are pro-development but the problem always has to do with the government's theoretical plans that disregard the social dimensions and the effect on the people. "The residents should not be kicked out of their houses, and if the government really wants to develop the city, it should focus instead on shanty towns," he adds, "but our island is different, people only live on seven per cent of the land and the rest is green and productive."
Other proposals being developed by the GOPP as part of its long-term development of Cairo include proposals to develop northern Giza, part of a pilot project whose results could be used to develop shantytowns in Boulaq Al-Dakrour and Imbaba. "In these areas, construction has not taken place according to the building codes, and as a result if at some future time we want to build a school or a police station or find a way of facilitating access for the emergency services, we will not be able to do so because the areas have been built around narrow alleys with no proper roads."
In northern Giza, roads that are currently only three or four metres wide are being widened to 20 metres, Madbouli saying that the social disruption this can cause is being kept to an absolute minimum. "We are only removing three per cent of the houses in the area, and we are building people other houses in the same location to avoid social disturbance." This policy has been followed in Tilal Zeinhom in Cairo and Al-Agaiz in Agouza, Giza, and it is now being tried in Imbaba.
According to Madbouli, the key has been to proceed by keeping people as informed as possible of the work that is being planned and to ask for their views at every step. "We are organising public workshops, and we will use government websites for people to give their views and conduct surveys by phone. I want people to share with us their ideas of how they envision the future of Cairo," he says.
Building professionals like architect Salah Zaki of the Friends of the Historical and Public Gardens Society believe that Cairo has not experienced decent planning since before the 1952 Revolution. "Since then the country has been using a laissez-faire approach to planning, with informal housing and shantytowns mushrooming everywhere." Zaki is happy about Madbouli's initiative, yet he believes that the ideas need greater public discussion. Above all, he says, the plans should "be for public benefit and not for that of investors."
The idea of envisaging a new Cairo for 2050 is a dream, Zaki says, but it is one that is greatly needed. "People's lives are difficult in this city, and those in shantytown areas live horrible lives. A solution must be found," he says. Too often, the authorities fear criticism if they propose future plans, so they just leave things as they are, he adds. Alternatively, they keep their plans a secret and then spring them on people. Plans to develop Cairo should go hand in hand with developing cities outside Cairo to try to ease the pressure on the capital. While it would be a good idea to clear the cemetery areas, Zaki says, it will be very difficult to persuade people to move, or to move the tombs of their families. Law enforcement has also historically been weak, he says, with the result that "people have got away with building where they like, or squatting on agricultural land."
Finally, the real question is how far people will be willing to trust the authorities to implement proper urban-planning this time round, given the failures that have taken place in the past. Existing Cairo parks like Al-Azbakia and Al-Qanater have been taken over by concrete, Zaki points out, and green areas "have always been easy targets for infringement. The state has not created new parks for decades, so it is difficult to guarantee that no hotels or foreign investment will take place on the islands of Al-Dahab and Al-Warraq." Real-estate speculation is a growing problem in many parts of the city, with prime sites falling into the hands of foreign investors, he adds. "What we should have is redevelopment, reconstruction, and, most importantly, transparency. People should know what is going on around them."
On the government side, Madbouli says that the fears of the residents of these islands are unfounded, though it remains unclear how development can proceed as long as they remain in place. Public interest should rule, Madbouly says. "If 16 million people want a public park on the islands, as against the 4,000 residents of Al-Dahab and the 30,000 of Al-Warraq, then these millions should have their say," he argues. "Besides, when people see the successful model we are using to develop the shantytown areas, giving people better homes and facilities, then they will trust the government's plans."
In fact, the missing part of the plans seems to be trust above all, with the government not trusting the citizens, and the citizens not trusting the government. The government does not trust in the ability of the law to preserve Egypt's remaining green spaces, and the people do not believe in the ability of the state to enforce the law equally.
As for the residents of Al-Dahab island, the word trust seems not to be in their dictionaries. Talking to them, it is easy to come to the conclusion that they do not believe the government when it says it is acting out of public interest, and they do not believe in promises of compensation either. Without the presence of this "T word", the government's grand scheme for the future of Cairo may turn out to be more "tricky" than "trustful".


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