An interview with UN special rapporteur Leilani Farha on Egypt’s approach to housing
UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, Leilani Farha - Photograph: Mostafa Mohie

Before heading to the airport, Leilani Farha, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, organized a press conference on October 3 at the UN Information Center in Cairo, in which she praised the efforts of the Egyptian state in resolving “urgent housing concerns.”

In the conference, Farha also expressed concerns regarding evictions that have taken place in informal areas in Egypt, as well as the exclusion of local communities from participating in housing policy planning.

Farha’s visit to Egypt is the first since 2010, and came at the invitation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It continued for 10 days, during which she met with officials from the ministries of social housing, foreign affairs, social solidarity, justice and finance, in addition to the chief justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court, president of the National Council for Women and several members of Parliament. Farha is expected to submit her report on the conditions of the right to housing in Egypt to the United Nations Human Rights Council in March of next year.

In her final statement on the visit, Farha said that she learned that, in certain cases of resettlement of residents of informal areas, people are forced to live in areas that are distant from their original places of residence and work — as in the case of the Asmarat housing complex — which disintegrates the social fabric of these communities. She demanded that people be able to stay within their communities and homes as long as they choose to.

Among the areas visited by the UN special rapporteur during her visit to Egypt was 26th of July Street, where authorities have begun to remove the remaining houses from the contested Maspero Triangle. “I have yet to understand the reasons why these people are forced to leave,” she said of that particular visit. “I spoke to a man who ran a shop and lived in the same property as his father and grandfather. The community seemed to me integrated and cohesive.”

“Every possible option should be explored to help the communities stay in one place as long as they wish. Alternative solutions to resettlement can always be found, as long as a threat to the population is undetermined,” she added.

Besides what is left of the Maspero Triangle area, Farha visited the Cairo districts of Duweiqa, Hattaba, 6th of October City and the governorate of Minya.

She was unable to visit Warraq Island, which the government has attempted to vacate of residents, however. The UN official said that government officials told her — for an entire day — that there was not enough security forces to secure her visit to the island, and when said forces were available, she still was not able to make the visit. “I leave this to your assessment,” she told reporters at the conference.

The special rapporteur’s desire to visit Warraq Island came within the context of what she described as concern about the “commodification of housing.” Farha said there was a social tendency to own real estate as a type of investment, and that the situation could worsen as the government announced its intentions to turn Egypt’s real estate investment market into an exportable product by attracting foreign investors to invest in luxury real estate projects in the heart of Cairo.

She explained that there is concern expressed by a number of Warraq residents — whom she managed to meet outside the island — of being displaced from their homes for investment projects. “The government should proceed with caution in its work to attract foreign investment in the field of residential real estate, ensuring that these investments benefit the economy and will not contribute to raising housing prices, or displacing populations who want to stay,” Farha commented.

During the conference, she also expressed her concern regarding the government’s failure to consult and involve the populations of informal areas in determining their own futures, saying, “There must be consultation with the population in all aspects of the development process, from the classification of informal areas, to the assessment of community needs, to the design, planning and implementation of development plans, including for those residing in life-threatening areas.”

“I have learned that some areas were forcibly evacuated […] and that no adequate compensation has been paid, and no other options for rehabilitating these areas have been considered,” she said.

Mada Masr sat down with the UN special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing to explore her views on Egypt’s new cities and the development of informal areas, key pillars of the government’s current urban development strategy.

Mada Masr: On the first day of your mission, you tweeted a picture of Cairo while you were still on the plane. What has changed over the last 10 days for you?

Leilani Farha: When I was on the plane, I was struck by the density. You don’t often fly and see such incredible density. I was struck by the lack of color, the desert color, not just of the land, but of the buildings as well. And, of course, I was struck by the dominance of the Nile.

So, what changed over these 10 days? It is dense living; that was confirmed. I am surprised that there doesn’t seem to be a huge amount of stress and pressure to get rid of the communities I saw from above. Because from on top, they look like regular informal settlements I’ve seen around the world, particularly in the Global South. And a lot of countries are trying to completely wipe out informal settlements. I was surprised to know that is not the case here, in practice. It was a pleasant surprise because when I was flying, I was thinking, “Oh no, there are a lot of communities at risk here.” Now I don’t believe that everyone is at risk and has insecure tenure. There is a way in which the government acknowledges that they exist and that they have to deal with them.

From above, Egypt seems vast. But I understand now that there is only a certain percentage of land you can live on, and really build houses on. So density really came home to me. It is important that the existing housing remains because you need it to house your population.

MM: You tweeted a video from one of the vacant new cities, part of a project that has been ongoing since the 1970s. These cities are populated by barely 5 percent of Egypt’s population. Yet the government continues to build more cities. What are your thoughts on this?

LF: The figures I was given were for specific new cities, and they were in defense of the occupancy rates. For example, I was told that the occupancy rate of New Cairo in its first phase is 65 percent, Sheikh Zayed is 50 percent, Shorouk City is 55 percent, and 6th of October City 75 percent. They probably told me about the best cities, however. If the best cities are really only sometimes half occupied, or even 75 percent, and in light of the resources spent on them, I am worried about this.

If you have 95 percent of the population living in old cities rather than new cities, and many residing in inadequate housing, I think you want to pay some attention to that. And I worry that resources are being diverted to new cities and not enough resources are being put into the old cities. It is absolutely a concern of mine.

It is an interesting idea for cities and countries to ask themselves this question: What is sustainable for us? Can the old city of Cairo sustain a bigger population? The cities of London and Sydney should ask themselves the same questions. Every city is under siege by urbanization. So it’s a good question.

Is the answer new cities? I am not so sure. I have yet to be convinced. Is the answer new cities that respond to needs, desires, what the population wants? Maybe. But is that what has happened in Egypt? I am not so sure. Because here there is a big problem, an overarching concern I have: The population is not being engaged. There is no sense that the government is with the people. There is a divide. The government is thinking, doing and implementing without meaningful consultation with the population. You can create as many new cities as you want, but if they haven’t been created by the people themselves, through their will, determination and desire, those cities will fail.

MM: You visited the city of Asmarat [a new state-built complex in Cairo for rehousing residents of informal neighborhoods], and various informal neighborhoods in Cairo. You also held several meetings with Ministry of Housing officials. Do you think Egypt is on the right track to afford adequate housing for the dwellers of informal settlements?

LF: I feel there could be more attention paid to in-situ rehabilitation. Between 40 and 65 percent of the population live in unplanned areas, which is considered a sort of informality. And I understand that a lot of those houses aren’t so adequate, based on the international definition. They are crumbling and they may not have as much access to basic services as they should, or the services aren’t good quality. I got the feeling that they aren’t a priority at this point. The priority is life-threatening situations and unsafe areas, which is something I understand. You have to prioritize when you have a limited budget.

Yet I do think there could be some more engagement with in-situ rehabilitation on a larger scale, because this benefits the bulk of the population, which is presumably what Egypt wants to do, without excluding working with those living in life-threatening conditions.

I feel I have some disagreement with the government around those living in life-threatening situations. I don’t believe that there is absolute truth with respect to what counts as a life-threatening situation. There maybe exists a situation that everyone would agree is untenable and uninhabitable — for example, immediately beside a railway line, or right under a rock or power lines. But there are a lot of “life-threatening” situations that might not be that life-threatening. It is open to interpretation. Even if there is a genuinely life-threatening situation, maybe moving 100 or 500 meters is possible, rather than completely relocating the community. I’m not totally convinced that this kind of thinking is understood by the government.

I have been to places in Indonesia and the Philippines where the government says the families living along waterways are at risk of tsunami or flooding and have to be moved. But the families and communities were empowered and provided with the resources to hire their own engineers and consultants, who come up with other ways to deal with the situation — and the people didn’t need to move at all, maybe their houses just needed to move back a little bit.

This sort of sanctity of community is not acknowledged enough yet in Egypt. I think there might be some pockets where the government has understood the idea of “let’s keep this community intact.” But I didn’t feel that it is really part of the housing culture.

MM: A lot of urbanists perceive informality as something to learn from, to build on, and to develop through cooperation with local communities. What do you think of this in the Egyptian context?

LF: Like those urbanists, I feel there’s a double aspect to informality. On the one hand, people living in informal arrangements suffer from real human rights deprivations, such as lacking access to basic services, living in terrible housing, being threatened with forced evictions or demolitions, and so on. On the other had, I see vibrancy. Not to paint too rosy a picture, but I don’t see anything informal there. I see permanence. I see communities coming together and making things work and figuring out their own ways to solve disputes. They create their own economic livelihood. It is amazing actually, what can happen on informal bases.

I saw that in Duweiqa, for sure. I couldn’t believe that it was like a little city in itself. There is no reason for this community to be displaced. It is very intact, not an informal community at all. I don’t want to glorify it, because I am sure there are internal disputes and power struggles within the community as well. But I absolutely see that we can learn from their organizing and resilience.

The Egyptian government is far from recognizing the beauty of the local, of anything local, of what can happen when you give people the space and the freedom to exist. I feel that Egypt is not there yet. You have a very centralized government. With that comes, necessarily and inherently, a top-down approach. I think there have been some moves to break this a little bit, but you are not there yet.

Mostafa Mohie 

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