Media Round-up on the City – September and October 2014
For its first media round-up on the city, of the year 2014-2015, the CEDEJ focuses on some main issues which, beyond mere urban considerations, also touch upon the past, the present and the future of the Egyptian society. Egypt’s pollution levels for instance, have again been written about extensively, although 2015 is going to be the year of the climate worldwide. Urban security issues, current priority of the regime and the army, have been the subjects of numerous articles though the press at the time of the Eid celebrations. The media round up also deals with mobility matters – while Cairo metro network is rapidly expanding – and heritage conservation insufficiency.
The black cloud’s return:
Once again, the month of October was witness to the « dark, thick smog” returning above Cairo causing dangerous levels of air pollution. As the Cairo Post explains, since 1999, every year in October and November the cloud creeps above Cairo due to the straw burning of the rice harvest leftover by farmers who have exceeded the number of rice acres they are allowed to cultivate. This year, cultivated areas of rice grew by over 100 percent (Minister of Environment Khaled Fahmy), consequently meaning that the state was unable to collect all the remaining straw, leading farmers to burn it.
According to former head of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA)) Mawaheb Abu el-Azm the black cloud phenomenon « has dramatically reduced compared to before » due to protocol between the Ministries of Agriculture and Environment to convert straw to fertilizers. It seems that el-Azm refers here to the protocol signed two years ago between the Ministry of Environment and the Egyptian Company for Recycling Agricultural and Solid Waste to collect the rice straw. Yet, according to The Egypt Independent, the protocol was cancelled because the company was in debt to the Finance Ministry.
Pollution in Egypt, a major issue:
Whatever the status of that protocol, even if that particular issue were solved, pollution in Egypt remains a core issue. As CairoScene highlights, World Health Organisation figures show that residents of Cairo inhale more than 20 times the acceptable level of air pollution every day.
Commenting on a study about pollution levels conducted by Columbia University, where Egypt stands in 60th out of 177 listed countries, Environment Minister Khaled Fahmy attributes the high pollution rate to the country high population density centring almost exclusively on the Nile Valley (six per cent of the country’s total landmass) and various types of pollutants used by industrial activity based notably in Cairo. He therefore views the expansion of industrial and residential areas away from the narrow Nile Valley as the solution.
World Bank report “For better or for worse: air pollution in Greater Cairo”
To expands on this issue: World Bank report “For better or for worse : air pollution in Greater Cairo”.
The Cairo metro’s third line: the Zamalek issue
The construction of the Cairo metro’s third line includes 4 phases of which the first two have already been completed and inaugurated: the Attaba-Abbasiya section in February 2012 and the Abbasya-Héliopolis/al-Ahram section in May 2014. The last two are still in the project-stage, where the most advanced being the fourth phase, continuing towards the North-East to the Cairo airport, while the third is planned to connect the west working-class neighbourhoods of Imbaba and Bulaq to the center of Cairo (Station Nasser and Ataba) through Zamalek.
The path of this third phase is currently causing controversy in Zamalek where some oppose the routes and stop planned on the island. Early this September, the Head of the National Authority of Tunnels – NAT, Ismail Al-Nagdi withdrew from a community meeting in Zamalek after the discussion about the metro project turned into “a fight”. Quoting a report of the incident from the newspaper Youm7, The Cairo Post goes further on the issue and emphasizes on the blurred line between the technical arguments that are brought by the inhabitants – risk of buildings collapsing on Ismail Mohamed Street due to insufficient digging depth – and their fear that the district would become “worse than Bulaq and Imbaba when a Metro passes through Zamalek” (a quotation from the meeting). The article seems to put back-to-back the State that “talks about public interests” and the upper class population of Zamalek whose only concern is to protect its way of life. To balance that vision we can refer to Mada Masr article “The Zamalek metro station: 6 lessons on citizenship” from January 2014 which develops interesting discussion of the mobilization against the metro in Zamalek as “ a test of the relation between the citizen and the governmental bodies after the revolution” and a dispute that “attempted to change the rules of the game at the level of the district, and to break the submissiveness that has marked the relationship between Cairo’s elites and the authorities for decades”.
Extension of the metro network: lines 5 th and 6th completed by 2020
Ismail Al-Nagdi also notified on 16 September 2014 that the fifth and sixth metro line of the Cairo network would be completed by 2020. The creation of these two new lines was announced on May 2014 as part of “28 new transport investment opportunities” aim to stimulate the national economy through attracting direct foreign investment, and was followed by a report about the fourth line (Haram District-New Cairo) which states that Egypt is set to start the first of the two phases within the fiscal year 2015-16.
To see the map of the current metro lines and the future projects click here.
Business class in the metro?
The Ministry of Transport is apparently looking into providing business class metro wagons (with AC, hot/cold drinks and Wifi) in a bid to offer high-income citizens a “luxurious alternative” to their vehicles. Users would use smart cards and tickets prices may run between LE5-10 Egyptian Pounds (instead of the actual single fee of 1 pound, about 11 euro cents).
Cultural and religious Heritage
Burnt and looted Coptic Churches’ rebuilding: an unfulfilled promise
Just over one year ago following the fall of the Mohamed Morsi regime and the dispersal of Muslim Brotherhood’s sitting at Raba3a and Nahda, numerous churches and Coptic properties were burnt and looted as an act of revenge by Islamists who accused Coptic Christians of engineering the overthrow. The following military government then made the promise to rebuild the damaged and destroyed churches. The anniversary date has been reached, much of the media has reported back on the issue.
Egypt Source for instance, details how the rebuilding was supposed to occur in three phases and how in fact little had been done until now. Quoting Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher with local NGO, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the article explains how thefirst phase of reconstruction (which began in December 2013) taking place in the Minya Governorate never really took off due to local opposition and failure to collect “military businessmen” donations promised to the reconstruction fund. 76 million EGP were announced but just 1 million was collected according to Ibrahim. Concerning the second phase of the reconstruction, scheduled for July 2014, no decisions have yet been taken, despite a meeting between Pope Tawadros and President el-Sisi on 8 August. As of August 2014, according to Mina Thabet, a researcher for the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, only 10% of the churches had been reconstructed nationwide. In conclusion, the author links the failure to “the inability or unwillingness of the security and government forces to protect and prosecute the crimes regularly committed against Christians” and states that “the empty burned out shells of church buildings serves as a daily reminder of this failure”. Muftah article “One Year After Morsi’s Ouster, Looted Coptic Churches Turn into Trash Dumps“ confirms that figures of 10% and criticizes the exploitation of the Coptic community’s pain for political ends.
Another article published on the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy also harshly condemns the Government and its failure to “ensure that all Egyptian citizens have the same opportunities and institutional support to establish and renovate houses of worship”. On a legal perspective the article explains how the previous legislation and the present one cause a source of inequality for Christians regarding the house of worship issue. Currently, presidential permit must be obtained to reconstruct or remodel a church as well as governors’ approval for all rebuilding effort and expansions projects. The fact that Christian lawyer Nabil Luka Bibawi filed a lawsuit with the Administrative Court of the Egyptian State Council on 1 September 2014 to compel the Prime Minister and Justice Minister to form a committee made up of al-Azhar and church leaders to write the outline for a law that would facilitate church construction, also explains why the « house of worship » issue became a controversy.
On the brighter side, the 1,700 year-old Hanging Church of the Coptic Cairo, one of the oldest churches in the world, has been reopened October 2014 after 16 years of renovations involving both Egyptians and Russians.
Heritage restoration: concern over Djoser’s Step Pyramid and Fatimid era Al-Juyushi Mosque restoration projects
Work has renewed at the Djoser Step Pyramid in Saqqara, announced in the first week of September 2014 by Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Eldamaty. The reconstruction project started in 2006 but was interrupted in February 2013 due to a lack of funding. Some archeologists are raising concerns about the company chosen to do the restoration: Al-Shorbagi Company. They consider it as responsible for an earlier collapse of a block of the 4,600-year-old Step Pyramid and is neither experienced nor qualified to realize restoration works. Moreover, Amir Gamal, representative of “Non-Stop Robberies”, accused the company and the ministry of not following international restoration standards.
Kamal Wahid, director-general of Giza Antiquities denied these accusations stating that the restoration work “was being carried out according to plans approved by UNESCO, the Ministry of Antiquities and the relevant consultancy bureau”. However on 24 September UNESCO asked Egypt for a detailed report on restoration work carried out at the Djoser pyramid, following reports that the monument had been damaged. The UNESCO also asked if its own 2011 recommendations on the restoration of the pyramid had been followed. The organization is waiting for the ministry’s report to decide on its future plans.
Egyptian Chronicles also blows the whistle on Fatimid era (11th century) Al-Juyushi Mosque restoration in Moqattam where all the signs of a historical building were wiped out from outside to make it looks like “a brand new mosque”.
Control of prayer speeches and a noticeable military and police deployment during Eid al-Adha celebrations in bid to prevent protests over mosques and public squares
The Eid al-Adha celebrations of October 2014 were a source of concern for the Government which feared that in some Mosques or “public squares (…) having political significance” supporters of former president Mohamed Morsi might stage a protest there “during dawn prayers”. Hence, in a bid to control any political outburst that might occur during the festivities, and in order to cripple the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, the State has “tighten[ed] its grip on Mosques” , attempting to control both prayers areas and prayer speeches.
On the field, Eid was thus characterized by a noticeable military and police deployment. The iconic Tahrir Square in Cairo was also turned into “military garrison” few days before the feast. Concerning the control of sermons’ content, the Government banned any use of political slogans in areas where prayers would be performed. Mada Masr’s article “The battle over the mosques” details how the Ministry of Endowment aimed to control prayer sermons, though revocation of the licenses of 55,000 imams who were not Al-Azhar University graduates and who “do not fit the mainstream moderate discourse of Al-Azhar” and through banning sermons in mosques smaller than 80 square meters.
The article also explores various religious and political critics that are opposed to that decision. Among them and on a more pragmatic tone, Amr Ezzat (researcher with the religious freedoms program at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights – EIPR) question the state’s ability to execute such decision: « We have over 110,000 mosques, some of which are registered with the ministry, and others entirely run by the citizens. It is very difficult to prevent people from praying in certain mosques because they are small, it is even more difficult to ensure that unlicensed imams are actually prevented [from preaching] ». In echo to that critic, The Egypt Independent stressed that despite the State decision, this Eid was “another Eid with a political Flavor” and reported that the Muslim Brotherhood organized mass rallies in squares across Cairo after the prayer and that the Salafi-oriented al-Nour Party, as well as Jama’a al-Islamiya, and the Hazemoon movement, all held speeches after the prayers. Other parties were also reported campaigning during the festivities.
Most of Egypt’s civilian infrastructure under military jurisdiction:
On 27 October 2007 Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi issued a decree stipulating that, for a period of two years, those who attack government vital public facilities will be referred to military prosecutors and tried by a military court. For Ahram online, the decree “allows the military to assist the police in guarding [such] facilities”. These facilities include large parts of Egypt’s civilian infrastructure such as electric power stations, gas pipelines and oil fields, railway stations, road networks and bridges, as well as universities.
This text follows an increasing movement of terrorist attacks in the Sinai and other parts of the country but many Human Rights’ activists feared the decree will make it easier to jail protesters, student activists or other forms of opposition. Indeed, as Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, said to The Guardian: “The wording of the law is so broad that in effect it may be used to ban all protests to silence any dissent and put protesters in the hands of kangaroo courts.” In Middle East Eye, Mahmoud Salmani, from the activist group No to Military Trials for Civilians, also shares his concern. For instance, he fears that people who often block railways to complain about shortages of basic services, like water, could face military trials.
Planning and National project
The second Suez Canal National(ist) Project?
Orient XXI analyzes in detail Suez “Pharaonic… and contested project” related issues. Announced on 5 August 2014 by the Egyptian government, it consists in: increasing and building new harbours where large vessel could be anchored, setting-up an industrial hub and more importantly creating a “new canal parallel to the first” (Mohab Mamish, head of the Suez Canal Authority) which is in fact digging a new portion of the canal (35km) and widening a previous portion to allow boats to cross. Suez Canal authorities forecast a doubling of traffic and expect to collect 10 billion euros/year thanks to the crossing fees.
The paper also notices the lack of criticisms toward the project within the national press despite the fact that shipping actors are raising concerns over the benefits of the project (the new canal will still not allow supertankers to transit without unloading its freight and present a high level of revenue risk), that the construction deadline has suddenly been brought forward from three years to one (in order to keep a competitive advantage over the Panama Canal ?), and that thousands of inhabitants have been evicted with no compension only ten days after their notification.
The article also reports both on the communication that has been made around the project since its launch and the nationalist discourse it promotes, calling all Egyptians to “support each other”. The financing of the new canal (and tunnels) is very symbolic of that since it will be only Egyptian (previously, former president Mohamed Morsi was accused of attempting to sell the Suez Canal to Qatar). In a series of articles, Mada Masr focuses on the details of the financing scheme, funding the project though the purchase investment certificates by citizens. Issued on 4 September 2014, they were all bought after ten days.