Media roundup on the city: march 2014
In an article published by Jadaliyya and Cairo from Below, Jon Argaman discusses the long standing argument of urban policies in Cairo: the city is said to be so crowded that it will eventually explode. Argaman shows how official discourses have shaped the myth of a city on the verge of explosion (see here an other discussion on density in Cairo).
This age-old debate is still topical, as urban policies seem to all look alike. Arabtec holding, a major construction company from Dubai, announced a high-profile deal with the Egyptian army to build one million houses across 13 sites in a project worth 280 billion EGP. If little is known about the exact details of the program, the figure of 1million houses reminds us of similar housing programs under Morsi or Mubarak (500.000 units for ‘Iskan Mubarak’).
At the same time, evictions in informal housing areas are still underway, and homes are being demolished, as seen near the site of the collapsed bridge in Ezbet Al-Nakhl district. Tadamun (The Cairo Urban Solidarity Initiative) relates the story and wonders what we can learn from it.
On the other hand, there are some hints geared towards alternative ways of dealing with ‘informal areas’. In January, a protocol of cooperation has been signed between ISDF and the governorates of Cairo and Giza. The project is meant to develop basic public services in ’30 slums areas’. Army forces would implement the project.
The formation of a new interim cabinet gave way to some comments. Former minister of housing Ibrahim Mahlab is now prime minister. The Guardian and Cairo from Below look back at his career. Mahlab is a former CEO of Arab Contractors (major Egyptian construction company, government-owned) and was an official of the NDP. Cairo from below describes his stance as housing minister as echoing the housing policies of the Mubarak era, in particular regarding scarcity of affordable housing (and here) or the development of new cities. The article also mentions a decree lowering the share of land area to be set aside for roads and gardens from 33 % to 25 %. If the decree is supposed to ease construction policies, it can be argued that the measure gives leeway to the developers rather than the inhabitants.
Mostafa Madbuly is the fourth minister of housing in 3 years, according to Yahia Shawkat in Mada Masr. Madbuly, trained as an urban planner and head of the General Organization for Physical Planning, was the main architect of the controversial Cairo 2050 plan, and later on for the Egypt 2052 regional plan. He later worked for UN-Habitat, while his former colleague at GOPP joined GIZ (German cooperation agency).
Shawkat stresses how much Madbuly is aware Egypt’s urban challenges: the massive inflation in the real estate market, inequalities in social housing policies, unbalanced infrastructure investments between New Cities and populated areas, and the necessity of decentralization.
Whether for housing programs, infrastructures building, or slums upgrading, the military is a key actor. Some articles try to evaluate its expanding control on the economic sector (see also here). “The military uses conscripted labor and pays no taxes, allowing it to price projects far below private-sector firms”, the Washington Post explains. Since November, a decree allows government ministries to skip bidding process in “emergency” cases. Over the last months, many major infrastructure contracts went to the military.
General Mohamed Amin, head of the army’s department of financial affairs, is interviewed by the Financial Times about the role of the military in the national economy.
Opacity in public contracts is at stake again with a draft amendment to Egypt’s investment law aiming to protect foreign investors. It would prevent third parties to fill complaints against government contracts. For the authors, it would leave the door wide open for corruption.
Corruption and poor negotiation cost Egypt US$ 10 billion in lost revenue between 2005 and 2011, according to a report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, with Egypt exporting gas below market prices during that time.
This has a particular meaning while the country struggles with an energy crisis. Obsolete infrastructures, shrinking natural resources and population growth result in the impossibility to fulfill national energetic needs. While awaiting infrastructures upgrading and the materialization of a long-term vision, emergency steps have been taken with daily power cuts for households and industries. The cement industry is particularly affected. As a result, cement prices have been rising in the last months.
These industries are now lobbying the government in order to be allowed to use coal to lower their production costs. The demand results in heavy opposition between environment and industry ministries, or else between personal and public interests (see here and here). The perspective of coal import has been raising opposition among the civil society since last summer.
Politics and scientists are not evenly worried. The former are more alarming about the possibility that the dam will indeed affect Egypt’s access to water, whereas the latter claim that risks are minimal.
Other articles focus on water management across the country. Despite regular refutations from public officials, there are frequent pollution peaks of Nile’s water. Under such conditions, even a slight reduction of the river flow would increase the concentration of pollutants.
Mada Masr’s article on the same topic (and ECESR report) describes stakes close to the ones of coal import. Like in the energy sector, the argument of economic growth justifies pollution as a necessary evil. Water management can also be compared to urban development; massive investments concern mainly a happy few settled in new cities but become scarce in highly concentrated areas where the majority of the population lives.
Tadamun regrets the contradiction in terms concerning the rights to water. The right to water is in the new constitution (here in arabic), however the State is not responsible for providing this basic service. Since, only 44% of the population in rural areas has access to potable water, there is a growing number of small purification units. While these small private businesses units address a need, Tadamun warns against the privatization of basic services.
On strike, the Public Transport Wokers were demanding that the State’s minimum wage scheme (1200EGP monthly) apply to them. The strike stopped on March 1st with an agreement that the public transport workers will get an immediate and permanent monthly bonus of 200EGP and would be guaranteed the same rights as others in the public sector. It was also promised that the public transport authority would receive 1350 new buses in 2014.
After Cairo, Alexandria’s transport workers striked from march 8th to 18th on the same demands. They were given the same guarantees. The public transport sectors employs 42 000 people, for monthly wages between 600 and 1400EGP.
In Heliopolis, Cairo’s last tramline stopped operating. Nevertheless, plans exist for a complete overhaul of the existing system, extending the line into the well-off areas of New Cairo. The last point opens a discussion: should public transportation rather be accessible to those who already need it or target high-income commuters to reduce the number of cars?
The public discussion about the metro, as it took place in Zamalek, gives some answers: the well-off residents of the area refused the creation of a metro stop on the island, because an easier access for the working class would ruin life in the area.
Meanwhile, the roads keep absorbing most of the traffic increase with some alarming consequences. Ibrahim Samaha, head of the Azhar Tunnel Operation Authority, announced his resignation, criticizing the inaction of the Cairo governorate, the administrative entity responsible for the tunnel. The tunnel’s maintenance department warns against what could soon lead to a catastrophe.
The transport minister seizes the opportunity to criticize decentralization processes, as he regrets the government’s decision to hand over control of the tunnel to the governorate.