Cairo consulate blast targets homes slated for corporate demolition

Cairo consulate blast targets homes slated for corporate demolition
6 min read
14 July, 2015
Analysis: The bombing of the Italian consulate in Egypt's capital has damaged family homes already under threat from multi-million dollar redevelopment plans, raising fears of eviction.
Cairo residents left in flooded streets after the bombing of the Italian consulate [Anadolu]
On Saturday, an explosion rocked the Italian consulate in Cairo, with a group calling itself "the Islamic State in Egypt" claiming responsibility.

Despite the four-tonne bomb's scale, casualities were minimal, with one fatality and nine wounded in the early-morning blast.

The explosion has also damaged much of the surrounding area, the impoverished Maspiro triangle, a 31-hectre informal settlement.

"No official bothered ask about us," a resident of Ramlet Boulaq told Ahram Online. "They only came for the consulate… In this country, the poor die.

"We can't leave our neighbourhood. We are like fish - taken out of water we will die. We want to stay here, even in our small huts. Here we have our friends and our neighbours," she said.

Members of the Maspero Triangle association, including Ayman Ezzat, told al-Ahram that the blast destroyed the frontages and windows of six houses, leaving their residents in the streets without a home.

Many residents sat in the street as a water pipe exploded, flooding the area.

A blog reported that on Saturday afternoon, locals organised a small protest in front of the consulate, complaining to the government about ignoring their damaged houses.

Eye-witnesses reported protesters chanting: "Where is the minister of interior?"



In danger of eviction

The blast has also increased fears - not so much of being a target of "terrorist" attack, but that the damage caused may expedite the eviction that residents have been facing for years.

The Maspiro triangle is situated on long-disputed prime real estate in the centre of Cairo.

"The government will find a way of moving the residents away from the corniche," housing and land rights consultant Rabie Wahba told al-Araby. "It will happen soon, and most likely after an unfair deal with the inhabitants."

In June, the Egyptian ministry for urban renewal launched a competition for a master planning project to regenerate the area, which would include plans for a new shopping mall.

Earlier this month, Laila Iskander, the minister in charge of
     Considering the buildings' age, any explosion in the area is likely to greatly affect the safety of the buildings
Baher Shawky
slum redevelopment, said that a project starting in January 2016 would totally redevelop Maspiro within 40 years.

She said that those residing in the area would be compensated and moved elseware. 

This appears to fun against the wishes of the majority of around 18,000 residents in the triangle, most of whom do not wish to be relocated.

There are disputes over the ownership of the houses and the land. Even though some residents have deeds in French from the mandate era, the government and real estate companies are claiming ownership instead.

Reflecting the source of many land disputes in Egypt, contracts given to residents by Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s in order to formalise land ownership, were cancelled in Sadat's liberalisation drive of the 1980s.

The land was consequently sold to Saudi and Kuwaiti investors.

The Egyptian Centre for Civil and Legislative Reform (ECCLR) has surveyed the residents' housing needs in order to acheive a more "participatory planning process".

"The approach of the governemnt is to depict inhabitants as the source of the problem and obstacle to development and urbanisation, instead of investing and making use of these human resources in the long-term, through reforming education and basic services," said Wahba.

The ECCLR and Wahba agree that - although the government acknowledges the right of residents to stay in their homes - authorities often use building safety as a justification for forced eviction.

"At least 50 percent of the buildings are from the 19th century," said the ECCLR's Baher Shawky.

"Considering the buildings' age, any explosion in the area is likely to greatly affect the safety of the buildings."

However, housing rights groups such as ECCLR and Habitat International Coalition continue to advocate renewal instead of enforced evictions.

Track records

Residents of Maspiro have repeatedly said they have been prevented from making repairs to their homes to make the area safer.

"It's like a gradual eviction. They want to see the whole area collapsing," Mahmoud Shabban, a member of the Maspero Association to Defend the Land and the Right for Housing, told Ahram Online last year.


Poster reads 'No to evictions, yes to development'





On the latest Egyptian housing day, Members of the Maspero Neighbourhood League issued a statement expressing fears that officials would continue trying to evict them, and demanded to be involved in the development process.

They also called for a review of all laws that have contributed to the deterioration of housing conditions, resulting from the prohibition against housing restoration and repair work.

Uninhabitable

In the nearby Ramlet Boulaq district, there are also tensions between investors and residents.

Naguib Sawaris, believed to be the richest man in Egypt, owns the Nile City Towers that loom over the informal settlement.  

Sawaris' company, Orascom, has reportedly long wanted to expand the river-fronted complex into Boulaq, but the residents have refused to leave.

These tensions have led to violent confrontations, with residents telling housing rights groups that thugs harassed and threatened residents, prevented them from making improvements to their properties, and have even set homes on fire.

Orascom has been at the centre of numerous other land disputes.

Following a fatal rock slide in Duwaqia, an informal area in East Cairo, residents were forcibly evicted to a settlement outside 6 October city, to land that was sold by Orascom to the government for what was reported to be a massively inflated price.

The government also used lack of safety in Duwaqia as a pretext for removing the residents; yet, the planned areas around the impoverished part had been reinforced to protect the wealthy residents from similar landslides.

Like many displaced residents of Cairo's central districts, the residents of Duwaiqa found themselves in uninhabitable housing units in undeveloped desert areas, and, as a result, lost much of their social cohesion. This affected their access to the city's services, such as schools and work.

This is the fate that many of Maspiro's residents fear, and are trying to avoid.

The Egyptian military - which owns around 87 percent of undeveloped agricultural land in Egypt - also has a track record of carrying out forced evictions in Egypt, killing at least two residents of the Qursaya Island when armed forces attacked at least 5,000 long-term inhabitants of the prime real-estate land.

Uncertain future for Maspero

Due to the lack of transparency in urban development plans in Cairo, there has often been confusion concerning the state of Maspiro - which was originally included in the plans for "Cairo 2050", a massive urban development project dating from pre-revolution Egypt, aiming to turn the city into a new Dubai.

These plans were put on hold following the tumultuous years that followed the revolution, ostensibly due to concerns voiced by residents and housing rights groups - but more likely due to the withdrawal of Gulf investors during Morsi's tenure.

Yet now, as Egypt is again flooded with billions in foreign investment, and in light of the housing minister's comments last week, development appears to be back on track.

"The plan has re-emerged as the 'Greater Cairo Urban Development Strategy'," Wahba said, who also questions the need for such exhobitant foreign investment, which he says often leads to the neglect of local concerns.

"It is a flagrant mislead," he said. "We have plenty of resources, but they are drained through channels of corruption."

As Iskander noted earlier this month, the Italian consulate was a historical building which could not be redeveloped.

However, due to the damage of the building and the surrounding areas, there are now fears that this will further hinder the struggle of Maspiro's residents to remain in their homes.

Wahba, however, is not entirely pessimistic:

"The results of negotiations, and the effects of social movements and activism are still precarious." 

While the terror of IS in Egypt remains the central talking point, the people of central Cairo's informal areas worry about being forcibly removed from neighbourhoods, centuries old.