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

By , a staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.)

To circumvent rent controls, landlords require (officially illegal) ''key money'' of $1,500 to $2,000 from new tenants. Landlords also have been constructing additions to the tops of rent-controlled buildings. Not only does this look tacky, but it often makes the buildings structurally unsound.

The government says there is a housing shortage in Egypt of 1 million units and that by the year 2000 this will rise to 3.6 million. Hundreds of families live on the grounds of cemeteries. Construction sites attract a temporary city of workers and their families living on the lot.

Yet even as the government tries to meet housing needs, it is working at cross-purposes with land-reclamation and agriculture efforts. Each year, the government estimates, 5,000 acres of Egypt's precious arable land is lost to urbanization.

In an attempt to alleviate the burden on Cairo, the government for the past six years has been building new satellite cities in the desert. The most successful of these is the Tenth of Ramadan village, on the road to Ismailia.

Transportation is an even more difficult problem. The streets are already choked with cars and jam-packed buses. Adding more buses would probably result in busier streets and fall far short of satisfying demand. On weekdays, the central business district around Tahrir (''freedom'') Square is so crowded with pedestrian traffic that even walking is difficult. Because of poor parking facilities, pedestrians are forced to use the streets - and buses and autos have to creep along. This gives the central business district the appearance of the Khan Al-Khalili souk, or open-air marketplace, where the prolific foot-traffic has long since ruled out all but essential vehicular traffic.

In 1982, excavation began on a subway system for Cairo, engineered by the French. The first leg of the subway is to run from Helwan in the south to Heliopolis in the north. But it will be a decade before the first trains are running. By then Cairo's population will no doubt have grown so much that the system will be inadequate before it opens.

The population problem is widely understood. Billboards throughout the country advertise the advantages of limiting family size to two children. Contraceptives are available, and Muslim sheikhs have frequently told their followers that there is nothing in Islam that precludes birth control. Nevertheless, Egyptians have great affection for children, family planning officials say, and still see large families as signs of success and fertility.

If, at the ground level, Cairo has its systemic problems of infrastructure and population, it nonetheless has its pleasures. It is not difficult to escape today's problems, to ride to the top of the Tower of Cairo or one of the new high-rises and gaze out over the city skyline onto the golden plain of Giza at the timeless symmetry of the Great Pyramid of Cheops. Or one can lose himself in the labryinth of Old Cairo and come suddenly upon the huge walls of the Citadel and conjure up Saladin and medieval splendor.

''Cairo of the caliphs,'' ''The Tales of the Arabian Nights'' called it, ''the superb town, the holy city, the delight of the imagination, greatest among the great, whose splendor and opulence made the Prophet smile.''

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