At some point in front of Karmouz Police Station in Alexandria’s Gheit al-Enab informal housing quarter, the dirt roads abruptly turn into freshly paved streets. The randomly ordered and recently demolished red brick houses are now replaced with modern buildings and well-groomed gardens.
An electric gate opens to let people into the new housing area, the recently built Bashayer al-Kheir (“Good Omens”) project, which President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi inaugurated last week.
On the same day, the first batch of residents moved in, shortly after their old houses, just meters away, were demolished.
To the right of the electric gate leading into the new housing area, there’s a large mosque. Next to it, a hospital, named after its donor, businessman Gamal Hamada, is equipped on a level comparable to private sector hospitals. It offers free services for the inhabitants of the new housing complex. Next to the hospital, there’s a vocational training facility complete with carpentry, metal work and other workshops offering free training for the residents to help them find jobs. The city also contains a rehabilitation center for children with special needs.
The first phase of the project, which was completed in late August, contains 1632 units. The Armed Forces’ Engineering Authority oversaw the project with financing from the national Al-Ahly Bank, in partnership with 33 businessmen including steel tycoon Ahmed Ezz and real estate mogul Talaat Mostafa.
Brigadier General Ayman Abdallah, one of the project’s managers, tells Mada Masr that the military is supposed to hand over the management of the project to a civilian executive center affiliated with the governorate after the moving phase is complete. He expressed surprise that none of the future civilian managers have entered the picture yet.
Sisi has taken on informal housing as one of his big battles. The presentation stated in a speech on February 6 that Egypt needs to build half a million housing units every year to combat informal housing. In another speech during the launch of Egypt’s sustainable development strategy on February 26, Sisi expressed his dismay at the fact that informal housing makes up 50 percent of Egypt’s urban cluster.
Abdallah tells Mada Masr that the project falls within the military strategy to have its six geographical commands (the second and third armies, and the central, north, south and western areas) offer a service for the communities residing there. He adds that Gheit al-Enab was chosen to combat prevalent drug use and that the plan is to keep expanding the project in the place of demolished houses until the whole area is transformed.
Reports say that the area started off as a vine farm in the 1950s and fishermen moved there to live off of the nearby Maryout lake, which then dried, leaving residents with no income source. The area suffers from lack in basic services and high levels of poverty.
The process of preparing people for the move started in 2014, with the documentation of houses in the old informal settlement and their residents between owners and tenants. Following that, the Ministry of Social Solidarity conducted case studies on each family to determine financial capabilities upon which the rent would be determined. Those who owned their houses in Gheit al-Enab were given ownership of their new houses and only asked to pay LE50 a month for services, while tenants got rent contracts in the project for between LE100 and LE300 a month depending on their financial capabilities. In the old settlements, some were paying rent as low as LE5 a month.
The new project houses fully furnished units, down to the smallest details. The family of hajj Mohamed welcomed Mada Masr to their new 90 meter apartment in the new project, which consists of three bedrooms, a living room, a bathroom and a kitchen, all fully furnished and equipped. The living room is complete with a flat screen TV and a receiver and every room is fitted with a fan. The furnishing is complete down to an iron, a blender, cooking utensils and even some decorative cups in the living room. The family says that the military forces present provided the new residents meals for their first two days in the compound.
Outside, at the rehabilitation center, Mada Masr saw a woman taking her autistic child to the rehabilitation center, who was instructed to bring him back for skill-development sessions after a meeting with the specialist.
The project has been tempting the curiosity of the people of Gheit al-Enab whose turn hasn’t come to move in yet, with priority given to people living immediately next to the new project, with the spaces of their demolished houses used to expand the complex. They arrive in a constant flow to inspect the place and ask questions. One man stops at the electric gate and asks if he can just walk in or if he has to pay a ticket. Many come seeking job opportunities and leave their applications for different projects within the compound.
But the sheer strangeness of the new home, despite some of its impressive features, is a source of anguish for the new residents.
“No matter how beautiful the apartment is, my parents are old people and they’ve lived all their lives in that house, so they’re sad to lose it. Additionally, we used to live surrounded by our family with no strangers around. There are people now living with us in the same building who are not like us,” says Iman.
Her father, hajj Mohamed, concerned, tries to stop his daughter’s criticism, telling her: ”State security can hear everything we say here.”
The military is heavily present within the new compound, and streets are called after martyred soldiers. A soldier is stationed under every building and military commanders often show up to inspect the progress of work. We stood in the balcony to watch the procession of the Alexandria-based commander of the North Army, General Mohamed al-Zamlout, who arrived to inspect the project, until one of the soldiers securing him waved us in with his rifle.
“The military is securing the place because civilian security will not be able to control these people,” one of the soldiers stationed to secure the buildings explained to Mada Masr.
Iman says that most of the people of the area were against the move, except those who live with other families in one apartment, for whom the project was an opportunity to get an apartment of their own.
Adel arrived with his mother and his eight-month pregnant wife to the new city, to which they will be moved as part of the second batch of residents. They came to inspect the apartment that their neighbor has moved into to gage the new life they are about to enter. The family, which consists of Adel, his parents, his wife and their future child, complains of having been assigned only one apartment, despite having been told that every married couple receives a separate apartment. The family was bitter for having to make the move, but Adel did not see a point in voicing his objections, saying, “I have no say in this, this is a fact now.”
The family complains about having to pay LE300 rent, compared to the LE5 they paid for their old apartment. Adel is also concerned about not being able to fit all his new furniture, which he bought when he got married nine months ago in the new apartment. He looks around the apartment planning spots for his possessions and decides to get rid of the living room furniture to fit his reception area furniture in it. His wife inspects the mattress and decides that they’ll replace it with theirs too.
Despite his anxiety, Adel doesn’t hide that the house impressed him, hoping that the unit he receives is similar. Their recently housed neighbor didn’t share their concerns as she excitedly showed them every corner of the house and every piece of furnishing, down to the blankets and towels that came with the bed.
Paying little attention to the garden made for them, children were playing football in the street like they always did. They seemed to be sharing the same conflicted feelings between excitement about the beauty of the new home and hanging onto their old life.
Three women who had been used to go to open markets stood in front of the glass door of the new market and waved to the cashier to let them in. They inspected the prices to make sure they’re not higher than in the regular market before buying.
The move itself was described as harsher and more chaotic than the present sentiments.
People who moved to the new project had been aware of the imminent move but did not know the exact date, until military forces and bulldozers arrived in their area the day of Sisi’s visit and instructed them to evacuate immediately. It was a harsh day, as the family of hajj Mohamed, one of the families who moved, describes it.
“They threw us in the street and demolished our house in front of us. It was like they were humiliating us,” hajj Mohamed’s wife, Saadia, recalls. Iman, their daughter, says that in the chaos that ensued as everyone was frantically emptying their houses, there were a lot of thefts and they lost many of their possessions. The families were not allowed to move in until the celebrations concluded and spent the day in the street.
The Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics announced last June that informal housing makes up 38.6 percent of Egypt’s urban cluster and that informal housing is prevalent in 226 out of the 234 cities of Egypt.
CAPMAS also said in a recent report, issued on September 18, that 352.6 thousand general housing units were built in 2014 and 2015 out of a total of 1.2 million units built between 2009 and 2015 through both the private and public sectors.
A report by 10Touba, an independent center for urban studies, added that local projects, including housing, sanitation, water plants, transportation and urban development constitute 60 percent of 2015/2016 urban development’s budget, while 40 percent went to regional projects such as electricity plants, roads and railways. Spending on the mainland, which houses over 98 percent of Egyptians, was equal to spending on new city housing, at less than 2 percent, according to the report.