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Cairo's poor aren't sure how they fit in with redevelopment plans

COLUMN ONE

Some observers in Egypt fear the capital's remaking will only push the poor further to the fringes to benefit developers and the rich.

August 09, 2010|By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times

He left his childhood home in Fayoum a quarter-century ago, setting out for Cairo where he was told laborers made big money. He followed welders, garbage men and bricklayers and helped build slums, one after the other. The shacks remain but the good money is gone; Hassanein's lucky if he works two days a week, earning a total of less than $9, not enough to patch his roof, fix the cracks in his ceiling.

He grabbed his cane and went for a stroll. There was no hurry; an idle man learns how to outsmart the hours. A woman cleaned vegetables on a stoop and young men smelling of splashed water and soap walked through the litter and down the hill, looking for a bus to take them somewhere.

Prosperity is like a match to gasoline, burning bright for an instant, then vanishing. Distrust of the government lasts much longer. Hassanein came upon neighbor Mohammed Osman, who once lived in a shantytown near the spice bazaars; the government forced him out to make room for tourists and he settled on these brittle cliffs geologists say should never have been built upon.

"The government told me I'd be here only six months. That was 13 years ago," Osman said. "I'm still waiting to be moved to a nice place."

Hassanein walked toward Sayeda Okasha's house. A boy selling propane gas canisters passed, causing chickens to scurry and drawing mothers to windows. Okasha fixed her hijab and did not linger beyond the shade. She hasn't been well since her husband left and her breathing turned bad. She told Hassanein she worries about thieves and trash but said: "I grew up here. This slum just kept expanding. I don't know if I should move. People know how poor I am. I live on their charity. If I left, maybe they wouldn't be able to find me."

Hassanein strolled on and stood with Osman on the hill. Hassanein looked down over plastic bottles and blackened rooftops. Osman glanced up to the ridge toward a new cream-colored building trimmed in bright white with red tile. It looked like a rich man's villa in the smog. The neighborhood had been curious why anyone would build something so nice near a slum.

Maybe their luck had changed. A few of the shanty dwellers walked over to the building and stood at its gate. They were told it was a youth recreation center with a soccer field. No, they couldn't use it. It was for the children of government and military employees. Membership required.

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Amro Hassan of The Times' Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.

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