CAIRO — Building in Egypt was once a noble exercise: The Pyramids have preserved the legacy of the pharaohs for millennia; even the Sphinx has survived the blasting desert sands, and lately, air pollution.
But today Egypt is in a housing crisis. Overcrowding is so bad in Cairo that thousands make their homes amid the gravestones of cemeteries. Others pack into shoddily built apartment buildings strained by extra illegal floors, added discreetly to increase a landlord's income.
Because of corruption - or more pressing needs, like building missile bunkers - officials haven't ensured safe housing for Cairo's masses. But in the wake of the Oct. 27 collapse of a 12-story building that killed 60, authorities have vowed a tough response.
But, there's much to be done. Experts say the scale of violations over the past two decades already endangers the lives of tens of thousands of Egyptians. They admit surprise that more buildings have not collapsed.
Now authorities have invoked military law to enforce tough penalties for illegal structures or shoddy work.
Construction work in Cairo is notoriously poor, but that this tragedy struck in a middle-class suburb, close to the home and office of President Hosni Mubarak, left millions of Cairenes uneasy.
Strict enforcement of the law, Egyptian experts and Western diplomats say, could cut close to some members of the country's political and economic elite who profit from weak laws.
"Those irresponsible, greedy criminals who waste the lives of innocent people to make extra money should be hanged," Interior Minister Hassan El-Alfi told the Al-Ahram Weekly paper.
In the building that collapsed last month, five illegal floors had been built on top of the structure. The owner, and three engineers who allegedly removed support columns to install a bank office, were charged with manslaughter.
Such scenarios are not unusual.
One file of infractions stretches 380 pages - though the owners haven't taken action. The governor of Cairo, Omar Abdul Akher, said recently that in the "past few years" some 700,000 violations have accumulated. Nearly all are ignored.
"We built the pyramids, and now our buildings are collapsing," says Milad Hanna, former head of the nation's housing committee. "As an Egyptian, I'm ashamed."
The problem has deep roots.
*After the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the USSR gave Egypt a missile arsenal that required reinforced-concrete shelters. Almost all construction companies were used for this task, and private building was officially limited. Proper concrete, steel, and cement mixers were rare, so poor concrete was used for housing.
*After the 1973 October war, in which Egyptian and other Arab troops attacked Israeli forces, Egyptian construction firms were privatized, causing a building boom. Landlords frustrated by fixed low rents increased profits by cutting corners and building illegal extra floors.
*A 1983 rule gave all builders and owners six months to declare their violations, and pay a fine only, in lieu of demolition orders or expensive repair. For builders, the amendment was an easy way to skirt the spirit of the law and was "part of the game."
"This is the cause of the [recent] collapse," says Mr. Hanna.
The owner of that building paid a $35,700 fine to make his five extra floors "legal." This was less than the price of a single apartment in the building.
The problem isn't always outright corruption, says a political expert who requests anonymity. Rather, he says, "We have an important group of tailors of laws, who tailor them to their size."
One diplomatic source says "there are so many violations that if the law were applied rigorously, there would be a revolution."
But the new crackdown indicates some officials are serious about tackling the problem. "Mubarak doesn't like how widespread corruption is, and this is a good chance for those who want to clean it up," says a diplomatic source. "But if they push too hard on corruption," he says, "the whole thing will come down - just like that building."