CAIRO — On days when there is no desert wind, the air pollution here can be worse than Mexico City's. The cacophony of automobile horns, screeching brakes, roaring truck and bus engines and crowds of people on the streets make it probably the noisiest city on Earth. Much of metropolitan Cairo is overcrowded, and many of its 14 to 15 million people live in wretched hovels.
Yet despite horrendous problems, the city that only a few years ago looked as if it might bury itself in its own effluence has taken giant strides toward being a more livable place.
To a former resident returning to Cairo after an absence of more than five years, the changes are startling.
Streets that were choked with rubbish are now mostly clear. Traffic that regularly achieved gridlock now moves steadily, albeit slowly, through most of the city. Telephones that were as useless as tin cans tied to a string now respond on command. Green parks abound. Public buildings sparkle with clean exteriors and fresh paint.
Spending Money at Last
Another visitor, an Egyptian diplomat back in his hometown after more than four years away, was also astonished. When asked how he thought the city had at last begun to erase the blight that has crept over it during the past 30 years, he reflected for a few moments and said:
"I'll tell you what it is. At last, they are spending some money on the improvements they raised money for years ago."
Actually, the money for Cairo's face lift has come mostly from long-term U.S., Japanese and European aid commitments made as long as a decade ago. The improvements have been in the works, at least in the planning stage, since the days of the late President Anwar Sadat.
But the assassinated Sadat's successor, Hosni Mubarak, justly takes credit for achieving what many people believed, just a few years ago, would never come to pass. Although beset by staggering nationwide social and economic problems, Mubarak's 5 1/2-year-old government, along with the city administration, made a top priority of basic improvements in communications, transportation and water and waste disposal systems.
The results are visible almost everywhere, from teeming passageways like Khayyam (Tentmaker) Street in old Cairo to the City of the Dead cemetery, where as many as 250,000 mostly middle-class people rent living space in villa-like tombs; from the lush tailored lawns of the once-decrepit Citadel, where Sadat imprisoned his opponents, to the city's main square, where a new French-financed subway is nearing completion.
Like many of Cairo's older sections, and some of its newer sections as well, the area around Khayyam Street suffered chronic sewage overflow problems, beginning 10 to 15 years ago when the ancient, British-designed system became fatally overtaxed by population growth. Shops where tentmakers have for centuries stitched colorful arabesque patterns for pillows, blankets and festive tents were often awash in infectious sewage.
A long-term sewer project, which will ultimately cost about $2 billion and is being financed by the U.S. and European governments, has already begun to show results. Khayyam Street and many others are now dry and clean, though parts of the city not yet reached by the new system still suffer overflows.
There is similar improvement in Khan el Khalili, familiar to generations of tourists as Cairo's colorful but increasingly seedy bazaar. At the time of Sadat's assassination, in October of 1981, the exotic aroma of spices that once hung over the bazaar had been all but overwhelmed by the stench of rubbish--and worse.
Today, the exotic aromas are back, and Khan el Khalili is probably cleaner than the average American shopping mall. Shopkeepers wield brooms to keep it that way, and small plastic trash cans at every corner serve as reminders to visitors not to litter.
This may seem a small thing to Westerners, but anti-litter discipline was until recently unheard of in Egypt. Traditionally, housewives have hurled their rubbish out of upper-story windows while uttering a ritual curse against the Turks who once governed the country.
Just outside Khan el Khalili, opposite the venerable Hussein mosque, a lush, green park with a fountain and tropical plants has replaced a sandlot where donkeys used to be tethered and cruelly exploited child beggars drew swarms of flies. It is one of many new parks in the city.
Even the beggars appear to have changed. Cairo's begging industry, run for generations by a Mafia-like organization that battened on the wretched and dealt out concessions, is said to have been dealt a crippling blow under a long-running police crackdown. Few beggars are visible on streets where many used to plead for piasters.