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.

Liam Stack
CLEARED: Egypt has removed parts of the Duweiqa slum damaged by last fall's rock slide.
Liam Stack
RESIDENCE OF MARTYRS: Some Egyptians who survived a September rock slide were resettled in the Suzanne Mubarak Housing Project, where "residence of the martyrs" has been spray painted on the wall.

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.

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.

"The government plan to remove the slums has been almost as random and haphazard as the slums themselves," he says, noting that most resettled Duweiqa residents lived on the streets in the days after the disaster.

Mr. Helw says the socialist regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and '60s saw housing as a right owed to all Egyptians. Today, he says, "the government sees housing as a sellable commodity."

"The way the resettlement process is done is extremely chaotic and the municipality employees who inspect houses to see if residents are eligible for resettlement have no criteria to work by," he says. "They make their decisions totally arbitrarily."

Awaiting safe shelter

Some have not been able to secure resettlement at all, but are caught in web of corrupt local officials, confusing land-holding practices, and callous landlords, say housing advocates and residents.

The Egyptian Center for Housing Rights has filed a raft of lawsuits on behalf of Duweiqa residents, including one that demands resettlement for 85 families who remain homeless months after the slide.

Radi Badry lost his home in the landslide and was not resettled. He continues to live in small rooms made from plywood, mud brick, cardboard, and scrap metal that sits less than 30 yards from the rock face, part of which fell last fall.

Like many of his neighbors, his walls cracked in the slide. Unable to afford proper repairs he has stuffed them with garbage from the landfill next door. In a child's bedroom, a tree branch holds up the ceiling. "What else can I do?" He says. "If I don't do anything the house will fall in on us."

Local officials say the street has not been resettled because they are overworked. Eventually, they say, Tayaran Street will be cleared, too. "Resettlement will happen, there is no way around it," says Adel Abbas, the secretary general of the municipality of Mansheyet Nasr.

But Helw says that in some areas of Duweiqa, like Tayaran Street, people with wasta – connections to the local government or police – claimed large swaths of public land and have rented out homes on them. Now residents want to leave, but their landlords do not want to let them go.

"These landowners have a lot of influence with the municipality and the police because they have paid a lot of money," says Helw. "You can see that in how the home demolitions stop very abruptly in their area, because they are known to have a lot of wasta."

Abbas, the municipal official, denies that landlords are involved in resettlement. He insists that everyone whose home was damaged is eligible for resettlement.

Under Egyptian law any impoverished person can move to the Suzanne Mubarak Residences for $178. In response to pressure over the slow pace of resettlement, Helw says the municipality is recording the backlog of resettlements as people from outside the neighborhood.

Last winter, while walking on Tayaran Street one day, Mohsen Sabry Bayoumi climbed over piles of rubble under the cliff where his neighbors homes once stood. He does not understand why the government will not move them. "We all live under one mountain, so why is the government treating us differently?" He asks. "If one part of it has collapsed, it is only a matter of time before the rest of it collapses, too. God save us. What are we supposed to do?"

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