Eweis Hassanein stands with his two granddaughters on a hilltop strewn… (Amro Hassan / For The Times )
Reporting from Cairo — He kills the rats at night.
They squirm through hillside garbage and nose around the threshold of his house. He wants to escape but he sees only slums, a vast empire of crumbling brick and tangled kites, filled with faces just like his. He had imagined a better life.
"How long will it take for the government to make things better?" asked Eweis Hassanein, a day laborer with three children and a leaky roof. "Government people come and snap pictures. Then they leave."
Hassanein's Cairo is a logic-defying patchwork of ancient mystique, air the color of mustard and shantytowns that have become sequestered worlds of desperation. It is a capital of narrow wealth and widespread poverty echoing with the hollers of junkmen and footsteps chasing battered buses through the summer heat. From Hassanein's hilltop perch, the city spreads like a wild vine at the desert's edge.
How to tame it?
Mustafa Madbouli is a man of blueprints and grand schemes. The director of the nation's urban planning office, he's trying to eliminate slums and impose building codes and order. The task collides with the clamorous Egyptian soul and a landscape of slumping buildings, dangerous electrical wiring, pooling sewage and zigzagging roads that mock the taut precision of the pyramids rising in the distance.
"For 7,000 years, since the days of the pharaohs, no Egyptian building was planned. It was all left to the people to decide," said Madbouli, sitting in his office on a street of flaking facades leading to the Nile. "Redesigning it all now is much more difficult than starting from scratch."
The city's slums and "unplanned areas," a euphemism for illegal development, accelerated in the 1960s when villagers from the Nile Delta and southern Egypt poured into Cairo with toolboxes and dreams. Like Hassanein, they staked a patch of earth, didn't bother to find out who owned it, stacked bricks and hammered up a house. The desert around Cairo shrunk beneath hanging laundry, alley markets and fix-it shops. Electricity was pirated, water hauled in by donkey and bicycle.
About one-third of the city's population of 18 million lives in slums and illegally built neighborhoods often allowed by officials taking kickbacks. The government didn't focus on these pockets until the 1990s, when radical Islamists trolled their dirt streets for recruits. Power lines, water mains and roads were built, but with the nation falling deeper into poverty, the state did not provide enough schools, clinics and other institutions.
A brisk talker with silver-rimmed glasses, Madbouli has the look of a man late for his next appointment. He's open about his country's problems and resolute about solving them. He scans satellite photographs, pinpointing cities and gray grids of slums. What the pictures don't show are joblessness and illiteracy, but Madbouli said if you fix a person's surroundings, you can fix his life.
"We've gradually started to build trust with people," he said.
In Cairo's north Giza neighborhood, for example, the government will build 40 schools, one hospital and 12 clinics for 900,000 people. Other neighborhoods, such as Hassanein's slum in the Douaiqa district, where a rock slide in 2008 killed more than 200 shanty dwellers and forced the state to improve housing conditions nationwide, will be demolished and families moved to new housing in satellite cities.
The Housing Ministry expects to have comprehensive development plans for Cairo and 226 other cities by 2012. The goal is as ambitious as it is controversial, amounting to, in Cairo's case, reconfiguring an ancient capital to reflect the aspirations of a new era. The concern, however, is that the city's remaking will turn into an exercise in reshuffling the poor to the fringes to benefit developers and the rich.
"No project of this kind will succeed under the current regime. It is the same with many other projects they have started before only to promote themselves and create propaganda," said Mamdouh Hamza, a prominent engineer and former advisor on the anti-slum program. "It is an impossible task to get rid of all slums the way the government is planning. The best solution would be first to prevent the spreading of any further slums, then to develop the existing slums from the inside rather than tearing them down."
A speck of a man in a pale tunic, Hassanein answered a knock at his shadowed doorway, his wife and two of his children sitting around him, shooing flies and pointing to trash blowing over the hillside. Nearly two years ago, the earth shook around their home as limestone boulders crashed from the cliffs. Many families in the slum have since been moved, but no such letter has been sent to Hassanein's three-room house, built in pieces over time.
"We'd love to get out of here," he said. "It's not safe anymore."