A widening class divide in Egypt

A surge in luxury communities outside chaotic Cairo reflects the huge gap between rich and poor.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

If luxury-loving Cleopatra were around today, chances are you'd spot her with Mark Antony at the Soleimania Golf Village, a half-hour drive from Cairo.

This 2,000-acre gated community is a luxurious oasis. Here, manicured lawns separate palm- tree-lined avenues from rows of hulking villas. The 72 artificial lakes host pink flamingos imported from Florida, and trout from southern France. Such extravagance might sound like Arcadia in an Egypt typically associated with the Indiana Jones imagery of crowds pushing through dusty city streets.

But these opulent living spaces reflect the emergence of modern-day Pharaohs - a new class of very rich Egyptians who profited from free-market reforms introduced in the '70s. And the result is a yawning gap between the rich and poor. This financial disparity, analysts warn, could engulf Egyptian society in escalating class tensions.

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According to leading sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, these new luxury developments "will alienate a sizable section of the Egyptian society from the government and from the upper class." And he adds, "this may, if not rectified, give rise again to a new wave of Islamic activism." The most recent of these waves was in the early '90s, when Islamic militants killed politicians, police, and civilians during their campaign to overthrow the Egyptian government and create a pure Islamic state.

This trend toward decreased wealth distribution has also alarmed urban planners and social scientists. They argue that too much government land and resources are being devoted to housing for the population's wealthy, while the middle and poor classes suffer a severe housing shortage.

Observers also question the wisdom of "frivolously" utilizing meager water resources - similar to the objections you might hear over adding yet another chichi golf resort to a desert town like Scottsdale, Ariz. "Scarce resources were directed to build these upper-class developments and they are mostly second and third homes for the wealthy," says Sayed Ettouney, an urban planner and architect.

It is estimated that only 10 percent of Egypt's population can afford to live in the gated communities. The 40 percent in the middle class struggle to afford a desert home, while the 50 which make up the poor population can't even dream about it.

But even at nearly a million dollars, some consider these mansions a good buy. Egypt's population of 64 million is growing by 1 million every year. Conditions in Cairo and beyond are deteriorating, jammed with people and cars - and often covered by a gray cloud of choking smoke. On average, about two people live in a single Cairo room. Those who can afford it, see the gated communities as a ticket to fresh air and a better quality of life. They also get a choice of recreational activities including golf, tennis, swimming, horse-back riding, squash, bowling, and even an amusement park.

More amenities are in the works at Soleimania. With another 100 residents set to move in this August - ultimately a community of 10,000 - Soleimania has plans to build schools from kindergarten to high school, a medical clinic, and supermarkets.

Meanwhile, a lack of housing and spiralling real-estate costs have forced many lower- or middle-class young couples to postpone marriage for years, because they can't afford to buy a home (usually a de facto requirement for marriage here). They also say that, because of a lack of services in the desert, most owners are not relocating to these new homes, but merely using them as weekends villas.

Relocating people out of the overcrowded capital and Nile Valley is the government's main goal of desert development. In this ancient land, 95 percent of the population is shoehorned into 5 percent of Egypt's landmass - on the narrow, fertile strip that runs along the Nile River.

Supporters of the villa complexes also contend that, since historically in Egypt the rich settle first and then the poor follow, this is a good way to develop the desert. "The poor migrate after the rich, because the rich need the poor to serve them," says architect Hisham Bahgat.

But as the debate continues, some see an even bleaker scenario for the future. As has happened in many American cities, they say the wealthy and their finances could eventually abandon Cairo - a crowded, but still amazing city with priceless monuments, Medieval mosques, and stately 19th-century mansions - leaving the capital to a future of economic depression, decay, and crime.

The government argues that the posh communities help to stimulate other economic sectors like construction and, hence, generate jobs. Officials also claim that government revenues from these luxury developments subsidize low-income housing projects and that their golf courses attract tourism dollars to Egypt.

At the same time, government officials also emphasize that, despite the growth of these new villa complexes, their first priority is still to house the poor. "The Ministry of Housing ... is committed to providing housing for low-income groups. For the other income groups we provide infrastructure and facilitate accessibility to the new community through roads," says Hussein Mahmoud El-Gibaaly of the Ministry of Housing.

Urban planners say a steady flight to fresh air will continue. And with names like Beverly Hills, Dreamland, and Palm Hills, the gated communities meet the wishes of wealthy Egyptians to replicate the American dream. "It's the ambition of any American family to have their own home with a backyard, a garage and a little pool," says Ziad El Ghazzawi, a resident of Soleimania Golf Village.

"Egyptians see this on TV or when they travel ... better than living in a high-rise."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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