Four days after security forces came in with bulldozers and demolished Nadia Abdel Kader’s house and the small kiosk where she sold merchandise for a living, the sight of a spoon, half buried in the pile of rubble that was her home for 25 years, brings tears to her eyes.
“They came in with bulldozers with no warning, we didn’t even have time to collect our things,” the mother of four says, pointing at furniture, shoes and clothes that lie amid the remains of her house.
Last Tuesday, security forces forcibly evicted the inhabitants of an informal housing area known as Ishash Othman in Ezbet al-Nakhl, giving them no more than a few minutes to collect their belongings. Bulldozers came in and demolished the houses that sheltered over 1000 families by human rights groups’ estimates, and 400 according to the government.
Over a week later hundreds of families remain homeless, as the government acknowledges the right of less than half of the evicted families to alternative housing.
Lawyer Mohamed Abdel Azim, who represents the families, says that corrupt housing policies and faulty eviction procedures regularly cause similar tragedies.
According to a report released by Amnesty International in 2011, 12 million Egyptians live in slum areas. “We are not dirt: forced evictions in Egypt’s informal settlements” documents recurring incidents in which residents of informal areas are forcibly evicted without proper warning and are not provided with alternative housing.
Yahia Shawkat, housing researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, traces the regular evictions back to an informal areas development program that the government devised in 1993. Under this program, forced evictions were followed by the building of a project in place of the demolished houses, such as gardens, garages or state buildings.
According to the available data, 15,000 families have been evicted and relocated outside of Cairo since 1993, Shawkat says.
Following a deadly rock slide in the Manshiyet Nasser area in 2008, the government identified 404 unsafe areas in greater Cairo. Several forced evictions have occurred in these areas since then.
Amnesty International’s report concludes that in some cases the authorities evict people under the pretext of safety hazards, while in fact the aim is to develop the areas for commercial gains.
“The state says that the evictions are caused by security concerns, which is not entirely false, but there are other areas with the exact same conditions that are left alone,” Shawkat says.
“Maybe they are housed in unsuitable conditions, but by evicting them you make their conditions even less suitable. Living in informal housing is better than living in the street,” he adds.
All the evictions were followed by a project that was beneficial to the state, Shawkat says.
Lawyers, activists and residents believe that the reason behind the eviction in Ishash Othman is a plan to build a bridge that would go through the area.
A week before the eviction, a part of Al-Sheikh Mansour bridge in Ezbet al-Nakhl collapsed. Eleven families were evicted on the spot and given temporary housing when they signed contracts to leave after 15 days. According to Abdel Azim, that contract has been extended for 15 more days but then the families will be in the street.
Having seen the treatment of their neighbors, the residents of Ishash Othman were skeptical when police forces ordered them to leave their houses and head to Marg area where they would be offered alternative houses.
The residents recount that they did not have time to object or even collect their belongings from houses where most had spent decades, before bulldozers came in and demolished the area. Those who protested were beaten up and briefly detained.
Cairo Governor Galal al-Saeed said after the eviction that the government would offer alternative housing to the 400 families who lived in the area. However, the residents and human rights organizations assert that the number of families whose houses were destroyed exceed 1000.
While the governorate acknowledges the rights of 400 families to housing, less than 100 of these have been granted houses. Abdel Azim says that 30 of these families did not receive their houses until Tuesday, a week after the eviction.
In 2012, government officials took a tally of the area’s inhabitants on an unannounced date, telling them that they would be evicted in the future and that those tallied would be eligible for alternative housing.
Abdel Azim says that the allocation of houses depends on this tally that was made two years ago on and as such is incomplete and outdated. He explains that extended families were only allocated one house.
27-year old Sayed Ali whose house was registered in the name of his parents in the 2012 survey says that officials told him that he was not entitled to a house now that his parents have died.
Ishash Othman has been reduced to empty land marked by piles of rubble where each house stood. Puddles of sewage water have filled the land after the wells where the residents used to dump their waste for lack of infrastructure were destroyed.
The residents stand in line to give copies of their IDs and a signed statement stating that they do not own houses to representatives of the Beat of the Nation Association for Human Rights, which has been tallying the number of families in the area to counter the government’s claims.
Abdel Azim explains that the lawsuit is a collective one from the residents of Ezbet al-Nakhl, Duweiqa and Nahda against the governor of Cairo, the minister of housing and the prime minister for corrupt housing policies which result in these recurring illegal evictions. Housing minister at the time of the eviction, Ibrahim Mehleb is now tipped to be the new prime minister following the resignation of the Cabinet earlier this week.
The families of Duweiqa area who were relocated to new houses after the rockslide of 2008 in the Manshiyet Nasser area now face evictions from these houses to which they have no legal ownership, while families of Nahda face imminent forced evictions.
Receiving alternative housing does not spell not the end of the troubles for those subjected to forced evictions.
Shawkat says that some receive houses on lease and are evicted later for failing to pay the high rent, while others have ownership of the new houses.
Shawkat says that those who received houses among the Ezbet al-Nakhl evictees are yet to receive contracts or made aware whether these houses are on lease or owned.
He says that replacing the informal houses with privately owned homes opens the door to corruption.
“There is now a corrupt circle of interests in the system, and that’s why it doesn’t change,” he says, suggesting instead that the new houses are given on lease, and followed up by visits from the government to avoid subletting and other illegal acts.
Fights regularly break out following forced evictions between families who accuse others of being outsiders trying to take the houses allocated for the evicted residents.
On Saturday, Mohamed Abdel Alim returned to the site of his demolished house with his new wife, along with a couple of neighboring families with a pickup truck to carry all their furniture.
Abdel Alim says that he has been going back and forth between Ishash Othman and the housing area in Marg for the last three days waiting to be given an apartment. Police officers told him to leave the area where the new houses are located or they would burn his furniture. Other families report being similarly threatened.
With the victims families for the most part, they are particularly concerned about the effect of living in the open on their young children. The families are sheltered only by the blankets given to them by charities, while they go to nearby mosques for the bathroom and collect money from one another for food. There is no privacy and kids are sleeping directly on the ground.
Marwa Shaaban walks around with her three-year old son in her hand and a bucket of water over her head, which she has carried from a neighboring area in the absence of water in the area.
Shaaban speaks of the difficulty of living with her young son on the sidewalk for five days.
Abdel Azim says that the prerequisites for lawful eviction according to international treaties signed by Egypt, as well as the country’s Constitution were absent.
Under the Constitution, adopted in January, forced displacement is prohibited. In addition, Article 78 states that “the state shall guarantee the right to adequate, safe and healthy housing” while Article 59 states that “every person has the right to security” and obligates the state to “providing security and assurance for its citizens and those residing within its territory.”
Abdel Azim points out that international treaties state that evictions should happen after the residents have settled in new houses and not the other way around.
Although it is illegal under Egyptian law for citizens to own state land, the status of the inhabitation of Ishash Othman was largely official.
“People live in informal settlements because the state fails to provide them with housing. So as long as they manage to create a solution for themselves and do not cause a headache to the state, the state looks the other way and even helps them,” Abdel Azim says. “As soon as the state needs the land, it starts to call them trespassers.”
Although the residents themselves built the houses, the majority of them are on usufruct contracts that enable them to use the state land temporarily. Many also have electricity installed by the state in their houses.
Usufruct contracts do not give people as much protection as a lease, making it possible for the state to evict them at any time.
Shawkat says that among the 220,000 families living in the 404 areas that were identified as unsafe in 2008, the state determined that half of these families live on state land.
“Living on state land in itself is not a crime, it is legalized,” Shawkat says.
He says that the state contradicts itself by building a stable relationship with the inhabitants who are on usufruct contracts then they decide to evacuate them all of a sudden.
A week after the Ezbet al-Nakhl evictions, some families are residing in the garden surrounded by the promised houses in Marg, waiting for officials to call their names.
Zahran Haroun is camping out in the garden with his family surrounded by what remains of their possessions after the eviction.
Among the couches, cupboards and beds, is an electricity meter that Haroun snatched out of the wall before leaving, keeping it as proof of his residency in the area — a residency acknowledged by the state.
Although he has papers proving usufruct rights to the land dating back for over 20 years, Haroun and his family are still waiting for their names to be called. Despite threats of violence they are staying there, he says, simply because they have nowhere else to go.
Most of those waiting for housing kept their electricity bills suspecting that this day would come. Now they point to them to counter officials’ claims that they did not live in the area and are outsiders trying to scam the government to get an apartment.
Ateyat Abdel Fattah, a 75-year old whose every worldly possession is now dumped on the side of the street looks sadly into her empty fridge. She complains that she hasn’t been able to acquire water to drink and take her medicine since the eviction.
“I’m 75 years-old,” she says, “is it too much to ask to spend the remainder of my days in a decent place?”