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Dusky, teeming Cairo in great need of humdrum street and sewer work

By a staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 28, 1983


One cannot help feeling affection and concern for Cairo - its teeming streets , graceful minarets, its squalor and its arabesque elegance - all made dun and dark by layers upon layers of desert dust, which dampens noise and gives the city a surreal, muffled atmosphere.

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Cairo, whose name means ''victorious,'' was originally planned at a wide place between the Nile and the Mokattam Hills as a royal residence and redoubt for the Fatimid Caliph, his court, and soldiers.

Today's Cairo is groaning under the weight of 12 million inhabitants. Its problem: infrastructure. Almost every Egyptian now knows the word and understands that the prosaic task of repairing and updating Egypt's streets and sewers is a costly, inglorious, long-term job. Because more than one-fourth of Egypt's population lives in Cairo, the infrastructure work is concentrated there.

Late last year, sewers burst in Giza, on the west side of the Nile from Cairo , and inundated whole neighborhoods. It took two weeks to stem the flow - partly because the old system was so far gone that the government decided to press ahead with replacing it.

The episode caused such an outburst that the Mubarak government felt obliged to hold periodic televised updates on the repair work.

It will cost $1.64 billion just to put water and sewage systems in order in Cairo, President Mubarak recently told the Monitor. The government has embarked on an 18-month program of renovating 100 pumping stations in Greater Cairo at a cost of $40 million, partly funded by American foreign aid and with five American contractors taking part.

But with Cairo's population rising so rapidly, this work will simply hold the line. Electricity, housing, roads, telephone - all need urgent attention.

The minister of energy recently promised that by mid-1983 the frequent summertime power cuts in Cairo would end. Nevertheless, government officials still reckon it will be necessary to triple electrical power output by the year 2000 just to meet demand.

The government is working to convert power plants from oil to natural gas to free more crude oil for export and to take advantage of some of the estimated 5. 5 trillion cubic feet of proven gas reserves in the country.

Egypt has also embarked on an ambitious nuclear power program, with no noticeable objection thus far among Egyptians, in part because freedom to criticize the government is limited, but also because of the widespread recognition of the need for more electricity.

In the area of housing, the government is having to deal with an incredible tangle. Under Nasser-era socialism, most rents were frozen at World War II levels. Moreover, government committees long ago decreed permanent and inherited tenancy rights in apartments, making renters virtual owners. Consequently, the average Egyptian rent is $10 to $50 a month. Foreigners, however, can expect to pay a minimum of $800 to $1,000 a month for a comfortable two- or three-bedroom flat (and often this is being sublet from a tenant paying less than $100 a month.)