CAIRO — The bulldozers came at dawn, without notice, leveling the potters' factories first and then their houses, as residents rushed to escape the falling bricks. In minutes, dozens of families were left homeless and unemployed.
Today a few live in makeshift homes of rusty corrugated iron, plastic sheeting, and bricks in this empty dirt field in Cairo where they once had thriving businesses and comfortable housing. The rest are scattered, crammed in with relatives or sleeping on city benches.
In a country still stung by losses to tourism caused by terrorism by Islamic extremists, a government push to make Cairo more tourist-friendly has given some of its residents a new concern: urban renewal.
"We have nothing now. We've been thrown into the street," says a mother of eight, who asks to remain anonymous for fear of government reprisals. She and others argue that they have lived and worked in this spot for generations and have no family elsewhere to help them. As she speaks, she points to her new home, a plastic sheet lean-to with several people sleeping inside.
The Egyptian government ordered the destruction of the potters' 12-acre settlement several weeks ago as part of its plans to transform this overpopulated, chaotic metropolis into a more orderly and livable place.
Working in a polluting industry set between the Amr Ibn Al-As Mosque, Africa's oldest, and ancient Coptic Christian churches in the most historic part of Cairo, the potters were among the government's first targets.
"Don't come on an antiquities site and say 'I've been sitting here for 180 years,' " says Cairo Gov. Abdel Rahim Shehata. "So what? This is wrong. This is against the law. They don't have any licenses for their presence, and we're not going to tolerate that."
Since coming to office eight months ago, Governor Shehata has promised enforcement of laws for poor and rich alike, despite a tendency here to ignore law and order.
Officials have designated an area outside the city for the potters' factories, he says, and they can apply for one of the 70,000 new government-housing units now being built in the city as part of the new development plan.
But residents point out that the cost of relocating and building new shops falls to them. Many are reluctant to give up the tight-knit communities they have formed.
Cairo needs improving, and fast. This city, on a narrow dot of green along the Nile River, has a population of 10 million people, plus 2 million commuters, and an annual growth rate of 2.5 percent. It has 1.5 million cars and only enough street capacity for one-third that number.
Each day the city produces 8,000 tons of garbage. Its thick air pollution is notorious.
SO far, some government plans to improve Cairo have brought positive results - better sanitation and phone systems, more parks and gardens, and more environment-friendly natural gas fuel systems for buses and taxis.
If all goes as planned, in the future Cairo will also have more street lights and better-enforced traffic laws. And the pollution-producing lead smelters, cement factories - and even the pottery workshops - will be moved beyond the city limits.
But the government program has its dark side. Thirty-four of the city's 102 informal communities must go, Shehata says.
One way to lessen the hardship on families being displaced by urban development, suggest urban planners in Cairo, is to involve the public more in the decisionmaking process.
There is community representation in the Cairo government, "but it is not effective," says Egyptian urban planner and architect Abdel Halim I. Abdel Halim. "If the potters were involved in the decision and in the solution, this would have been a much better situation."
Just up the road from the potters' makeshift homes is another community of potters, also slated for demolition.
"Where will we go? We can't work. We have only one profession," says Mohammed, a workshop owner. "There are how many factories here, and for each factory how many children are being supported?"
As he speaks, one man spins a pot in a corner of the room while another molds slabs of clay roofing. Outside, a brick kiln belches black smoke as a gray haze covers the potters' community.