About 60 or 70% of Cairo is made up of ramshackle informal settlements and shanty towns which have been mushrooming since the mid- seventies. The hideous urban sprawl is gobbling up the limited Egyptian agricultural patch as the weak state of the mediocre Mubarak lack(s) comprehensive socio-economic development plans for the bulk of Egypt's population. This has in turn led to massive immigration to Cairo which is expanding horizontally across its agrarian belt. The phenomena include Alexandria and the Delta cities to the effect that the Urban Egypt is now restricted to parts of greater Cairo, Alexandria and some Upper Egyptian towns. The discrimination against the people of these settlements, the stigmatization and widely accepted stereotypes about them are alarming. Their status is akin to that of African Americans in U.S cities at the turn of the 20th century. Those disenfranchised people are a time bomb at the heart of Egypt
Each informal settlement is divided into family-based neighborhoods lead by one or several extended family along with its networks of patronage. The families are oftentimes involved in illicit activities masked by a vocational façade. The networking resource of the neighborhood and the isolation of the settlements are both essential for their business model. It is therefore no wonder that stern resistance is put up against any attempts by the state to resettle the inhabitants in subsidized housing units in other places due to the perceived detrimental effects to their social capital. Besides, large resettlement projects of a scale that can make a significant impact on the total size of informal settlements in Egypt would require resources way beyond what is available to the Egyptian debt-ridden and cash-strapped treasury.
Economical family units. Image via Alexander Stross
Think of a grand scale mega-project for transforming Egypt's shanty towns and grotesque informal settlements, replacing them with economical, easy-to-build family units like the illustrated ones (above); or with the new innovative Ikea refugee shelters illustrated below. The administrative units could be communes á la "Kibbutz". In each commune economic activity should be centered on small industries, workshops and some farming while energy needs are to be mostly supplied by a portfolio of garbage incinerators, bio-units and solar panels. Central vocational schools and government business training centers manned by Egypt's best should be established in each cluster of communes. Experiences from China in communal small-scale industries can be copied. The whole rationale behind the communes is canalizing the social capital and communal identity of the neighborhoods in a productive orientation.
Image via Better Shelter
Once a solid framework for the communes is established, one that gains the trust of the people, the communes could turn into a magnet for technology hipsters of the sort of Marcen Jacubowsky of the global village construction set, which is a platform in which Marcen lead a team in Missouri, U.S.A, of mostly amateur enthusiasts to build tools and tractors for farming, building and energy generation. They use heaps of scrap metal as raw material in a self-supporting farming community producing its energy and hardware needs all from scratch. Of course such communities are to large extent experimental ones and certainly the socio-cultural set-up in Egypt is not conducive to the establishment of such communities. Nonetheless, the Success of Marcen’s experience sheds light on the tremendous potential of communities that share a belief in a more sustainable and less materialistic future. If anything, such experiences could be extrapolated to provide inspiration for alternative contours of development in places like Egypt. It helps that many in the informational settlements have vocational skills acquired through Egypt’s informal apprenticeship system. The system – though unregulated – has its tacit rules and large compounded local knowledge networks.
There are already some experiments in Egypt for family energy self-sufficiency. A non-profit organization sponsored building bio-gas units from recycled material on rooftops of some of Cairo’s poor areas (poor Cairo neighborhoods are not necessarily informal settlements) to help the families with their energy bills.
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When it comes to farming the model should be for highly water-efficient greenhouses. Feasibility studies accounting for water resources and land availability would decide on farming model, whether subsistence, or a business-oriented flower and herbal farming.
"There are already some experiments in Egypt for family energy self-sufficiency"
An issue that should remain controversial is ownership structure since violent feuds between families are not a rare incidence in the informal settlements. Also, each family is usually large in number with 7 or 8 children per household. This in turn would lead to disputes and difficulty of taking the right business decisions. Hence ownership should be communal with the greenhouses, small-sized industry belonging to the commune and run through councils including elected members of the communes and representatives from NGOs and funding entities. Private ownership should be restricted to workshops, retail outlets, etc. The whole experience must not be construed as a communist experience, but rather an opportunity for providing training, jobs and social development for a marginalized and disenfranchised community that shares some of the characteristics of indigenous ones.
A project of such scale is bound to require large financial resources which are a rare commodity in Egypt. Egypt however has a much skewed income distribution where middle-men, agents and rent seekers acquire the largest chunk of a backward economy. A slight adjustment in the tax system could make a quantum leap in Egypt's prospects provided that the sclerotic political caste (ancien regime, MBs, sham revolutionaries) is discarded .
Egypt is one of the largest recipients of western aid due to its pivotal role in Middle Eastern security. Alas, the Euros and dollars go down the drain into cosmetic projects and corruption. The west has direct interest in uprooting Islamic extremism of which social deformities are one of the causes. Hence in the framework of transparent, strong, reforming government the EU can help with finances, expertise and planning until the new communes are self-sustaining.
All the same, I can't help but laugh when I read about our minister of informal settlements’ bombastic press releases about a revolution in shanty towns which amounts to no more than showcasing the installation of few expensive solar panels in some of them. There are many global well-wishers for Egypt, but first we have to relay clear signals that we are up for a real change.