Between a rock and a hard place: Egypt’s slum dwellers

During Egypts historic uprising in January and February one of the popular chants in places like Tahrir Square was bread, freedom and social justice.  Its maybe not as snappy as Maggie, Maggie, Maggie! / Out! Out! Out!, but it neatly sums up the way that this years protests movements in the Middle East and North Africa have seen economic and political demands intertwined. In some instances the two have fused into the appeal for dignity give us dignity: freedom from repression and freedom from grinding poverty and corruption.  Not surprisingly, in Egypt large numbers of the countrys most economically wretched were out on the streets demanding change.  A new report from Amnesty gives us an insight into why they were there. Across 123 pages the report shows that a vast system of slums in Egypt has bred massive insecurity in the country, especially in Cairo. Across the country there are thought to be 12 million people living in slums (out of a population of 80 million), meaning that one Egyptian person in every six inhabits a run-down dwelling of one kind or another, half of all these in Cairo. For example, in a place called Manshiyet Nasser in Cairo, two families live in a one-story shack located right underneath a small cliff (see photo). The cliff is unstable and theres a real risk that huge rocks are going to slide onto the structure and kill or injure anyone living there. (These deadly rock-slides have happened before in 2008 a rock fall killed at least 119 people in nearby Al-Duwayka settlement. Local government officials were later jailed for negligence). 

The Manshiyet Nasser house is occupied by a 28-year-old man called Ashraf Assaf Abdel Wahad and his 30-year-old sister Neemat. Ashraf and Neemat are poor people who see this place as a lifeline. They bought it for approximately £2,500 four years ago. They work to eke out a living there (making steel plates, doing embroidery). They also rent out two rooms for some extra income (total rent: £10). They dont feel physically safe underneath gigantic boulders but they fear destitution if theyre forced to move out. Ashraf and Neemat are literally caught between a rock and a hard place.

Fearing eviction even more than being crushed to death is a particularly stark example of the plight of Egypts millions of slum dwellers. True, they dont all live under unstable cliffs, but a staggering 850,000 do inhabit some 404 unsafe areas, as designated by the Informal Settlements Development body, set up after the Al-Duwayka disaster.  Amnestys point is that these huge numbers of Egypts most marginal people are typically at the mercy of the countrys drive to evict and resettle them.  In particular, the Egyptian authorities have a sort of master-plan (the Cairo 2050 plan), to relocate people from the capital to new satellite cities). In some instances this seems to be about pushing the poor out of the capital and making money out of developing their land, but even when its arguably well-intentioned the reality is that were seeing people forcibly evicted and made destitute, not genuinely consulted and not resettled in a humane, dignified way.

This morning I got an email from Amnesty UK director Kate Allen whos in Cairo meeting slum residents in Manshiyet Nasser. She says the revolution has emboldened people theyre demanding their rights. Its an interesting consequence of the fall of Mubarak.

Please support the online campaign and call on the Governor of Cairo Abdel Qawy Khalifa to end forced evictions and comply with international standards over evicting people. (Another aspect, by the way, is that women in the slums are especially at risk having the least security of tenure and often being at home when the bulldozers arrive during the day )

I dont know about you, but where I live is very important to me and if I got home from work one day to find Hackney council officials, the police and a bulldozer preparing to demolish my flat Id be pretty distraught. Id go so far as to say that Egypts 25 January will not be near complete until the countrys slum dwellers start getting a proper stake in the countrys future.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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