Following the rockfall, Egyptian slum dwellers have little more than hope
A deadly rock slide last fall left many survivors unable to reclaim even the most meager of livelihoods.
A chair, a few thin mats, threadbare pillows. These are among the remnants of the 52 years that Khalaf Hussein and his wife, Hanifa Abbas, spent living in one of this city's most densely packed slums – and one of the poorest places on earth.Skip to next paragraph
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The couple was able to salvage only a few possessions after the Duweiga shantytown was crushed by a rockslide that sent boulders, some weighing 70 tons and bigger than buildings, cascading into the streets last September. At least 95 people were killed.
Even though the store he ran was crushed, Mr. Hussein and his family count themselves among the fortunate. One of the rocks landed just 13 feet from where he and his wife were sleeping that morning. But in the months following the disaster, the family, like many others from the slum, has slid even further down Egypt's rigid class system. They have been stymied by bureaucratic hurdles, corruption, and this country's changing attitudes toward the urban poor.
The government's handling of the disaster, say many human rights groups, illustrates that while Egypt, which has received more than $50 billion in aid from the United States since 1975, has made some progress in aiding its poorest, it is still unable – or unwilling – to improve public safety and the quality of life for scores of Egyptians living in poverty.
Life without a safety net
Egypt is a nation without much of a safety net – and when poor people are victims of natural or man-made disasters, of which Egypt has had more than its share, they are often unable to reclaim even the most meager livelihoods.
The day after Hussein lost his small grocery story to the rock slide, he and his sons were evicted from their damaged homes as part of a government effort to clear the disaster zone.
A government employee delivered the eviction notice, and days later all the buildings not destroyed in the slide were demolished by the state. Today, the neighborhood has been flattened. The basin it once sat in has been filled in with pebbles and sand. Residents say the government never exhumed the bodies of the dead; it simply buried them.
Hussein and his four sons had each built his home on public land under Egypt's widespread informal land-holding system, called wadaa yad, or "laying on of hands."
Under that system, they were able to live on government-owned land by paying rent to the local municipality, says Ms. Abbas, and although it lacked the stability of true homeownership, she says, they felt like landowners.
"I have a son who is 34 years old and he was born there," she says. "How can I be moved away from it just like that?"
After their eviction, they moved to the Suzanne Mubarak Project, a vast complex of 8,500 housing units built by the Egyptian government in 2000.
Before they could get the keys, they had to sign a series of legal documents. No one in Hussein's family can read, but they were desperate for shelter and stability so they put their thumbprints on the dotted line. They still don't know if they own the apartments or will have to pay rent.
Mohamed Helw, a lawyer for the Egyptian Center for Housing Rights, says that the resettlement difficulties faced by families like Hussein's reflect the shifting nature of Egypt's attitude toward the urban poor.