Since the mid-1990s, the Egyptian government has adopted neoliberal economic policies, reflected in real estate and the acquisition and accumulation of wealth.
This has been evidenced in the building of resorts and walled residential compounds, and the nepotistic selling of land to those in power, who continue to make vast fortunes at the expense of the remainder of the population.
As a result of government policies that deprived the majority of Egyptians of land and housing at reasonable prices, informal urban areas began to spread as alternative living spaces in close proximity to available job opportunities.
After selling off lucrative land in greater Cairo — New Cairo, 6th of October City and Sheikh Zayed — a group of investors close to the formerly ruling National Democratic Party, along with the General Agency for Urban Planning, adopted a new approach. They focused on areas within Cairo that had been forgotten for decades and were mostly inhabited by the working classes, including the Maspero Triangle, Manshiet Nasser, Ezbet Khairallah, Ezbet al-Hagana, Bulaq al-Dakrour, Hekr Abu Doma, Dahab and Qursaya island, among others.
Thus, the Cairo 2050 project emerged.
Although the project includes some positive elements, especially concerning urban governance and transportation, most of it is dominated by the idea of evacuating Cairo of its poorer inhabitants and selling valuable land to investors.
For example, one informal area, with a population of almost a million people, has been totally erased on the projected map of Cairo, and replaced by a green area and a high-end residential project. But where will these one million people go?
It need not be mentioned that the current minister of housing, who retained his post in this week’s Cabinet reshuffle, played a crucial role in Cairo 2050, in his capacity as head of the General Agency for Urban Planning at the time.
After the 2011 revolution, the Cairo 2050 project was paused for a period, due to popular pressure and the efforts of small organizations, brave enough to challenge the initiative. At the time, social justice was at the forefront of public attention and general sentiment, even among donor agencies, and was being directed towards the development of informal areas and deteriorating urban areas, instead of investing in new cities and never-ending residential projects.
The past two years have witnessed two important developments that are contradictory in their essence. The first is the transformation of the Informal Settlements Development Fund, established in 2008, into the Ministry of Urban Renewal and Informal Settlements, headed by Laila Iskandar.
Iskandar headed the Ministry of Environment briefly and was known for her objections to the use of coal. The second development is the appointment of the current minister of housing, known for his neoliberal market tendencies.
The contradiction stems from the fact that the Ministry of Urban Renewal and Informal Settlements had a clear social purpose, in trying to understand the reason for the existence of informal settlements. This lies, essentially, in the collapse of the local council system and the absence of justice in the distribution of public resources, foremost in the areas that are primarily controlled by the Ministry of Housing.
The Ministry of Urban Renewal tried to suggest new ideas based on consultation with citizens and civil society, as well as to address the root economic and social causes of informal settlements. The ministry communicated with a new generation of urban developers, who tried to think outside the box and work on the ground to reach more realistic, just and sustainable solutions for citizens’ problems.
One of the projects that reflected this new approach, and which received ample media coverage, was the Maspero triangle participatory planning project, in which the ministry made an effort to support urban development experts and human rights activists who proposed the initiative. These experts suggested a participatory approach, seeking to achieve a balance of interests between the various stakeholders. Several steps were taken in this direction, including a tender process, initiated by the government, for international experts to translate the proposal into a detailed plan that could be implemented on the ground.
The trajectory of the project was far from smooth, and was received in different ways by various government bodies, some of whom were in opposition to this approach. Such disagreements extend to other projects under the jurisdiction of the ministry, including the recycling of solid waste, and how to deal with important areas such as Manshiet Nasser and Ezbet Khairallah, which unfortunately were not given enough time to develop necessary projects.
At the same time, the Ministry of Housing took a different path, echoing the pre-January 2011 era. It launched a number of mega projects: a new capital, million-housing unit projects, and hundreds of thousands of residential units, especially after the economic conference in Sharm el-Sheikh. This was accompanied by the controversial involvement of the Ministry of Housing in mid-level housing projects, where prices have soared in recent months.
I would argue that successive ministries of housing, including the current one, have contributed to the housing crisis in Egypt through the continuously high pricing of land and housing, without considering the millions of closed residential units. This has been followed by an unprecedented increase in informal housing.
This dichotomy in the orientation of the two ministries presents a real dilemma. Are we following a neoliberal or social agenda?
The orientation of the Ministry of Urban Renewal and Informal Settlements, in its diversion from the norms of the ruling class, was not compatible with the current moment in Egypt.
When the new Cabinet was formed this week, the matter was settled. There is now no place for such policies and no voice will be allowed to overshadow that of the neoliberal march.
The Ministry of Urban Renewal and Informal Settlements has been abolished, while the Ministry of Housing continues. The problem of informal settlements is now in secure hands — those of the Ministry of Housing.