Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government of Egypt has demolished whole unplanned neighborhoods, commonly referred to as ashwa’yat, and relocated thousands of its own citizens. The government has often justified its decision to demolish areas as for the sake of development, which has ranged from constructing freeways to beautifying areas for tourism. Demolishing informal settlements has long been a policy pursued by Egyptian regimes, though in 2020 the government began allowing owners of informal property to apply and pay to formalize, or “reconcile,” their residences or risk its demolition. The government set an initial deadline to apply to reconcile their residence in September 2020, though the government’s heavy-handed approach has repeatedly stirred significant discontent which forced it to back off and extend the deadline to the end of March 2021. Though the deadline has passed the government seems to have continued to delay decisive action on this destructive policy.
In late December 2018, the Ministry of Housing declared Egypt would be “slum-free” by the end of 2019, although the government later revised its goal to eliminate Egypt’s informal settlements by 2030, and it seems intent on meeting this goal. The government has several key motivations in eliminating informal settlements. First, informal settlements don’t fit the vision the government tries to present of Egypt, whether that means that development projects necessitate their destruction or because they aesthetically disrupt the state’s desired cityscape. Additionally, informal settlements create public safety hazards as the buildings often do not adhere to current safety codes, as such building collapses remain a perennial concern. Moreover, governments have struggled to collect revenues from informal settlements, indeed they traditionally have been sites for electricity and water theft. The decision to allow people to pay to formalize their residence adds a definitive financial component. Officials have stated fees collected from reconciliations are set to be repurposed to support development projects. Lastly, limited land resources complicate the Egyptian government's attempts to reshape the country’s cityscapes as Egypt’s rapidly growing population, adding about one million people every six months, sets up an intensifying competition between agriculture and urban sprawl.
Though the government has interests in eliminating informal settlement, the decision may remold land use in Egypt and threaten the country’s stability. An estimated 40 percent of Cairo’s population lives in informal settlements and seventy-five percent of urban areas across Egypt are unplanned. According to the Built Environment Observatory, 8.2 million housing units were built without permits between 2008 and 2018. Informal settlements are a solution developed by the urban poor to the government’s failure to provide them adequate and affordable shelter. They allow a population in which roughly 32.5 percent of people live below the official poverty line to quietly encroach on the state’s domain. Informal settlements have persisted in part because of their central locations, alternatives are often not nearly as advantageous or accessible.
Attempts to eliminate informal settlements have a several decades-long history in Egypt and the latest push to eliminate them closely mirrors previous crackdowns. Hosni Mubarak’s government made attempts to integrate and regularize informal settlements. A 1984 law allowed settlers to regularize their informal settlement by buying their plots, though only 5 percent of the eligible population submitted a request. Additional past efforts have failed to curb the presence of informal communities across Egypt’s major population centers largely due to local resistance. Residents resist the elimination of informal settlements because alternative housing is often distant from employment opportunities and poorly covered by transportation services. The state’s efforts to eliminate informal settlements may displace hundreds of thousands and lead to large protest movements. Developments in land-use policy will determine the future shape of Egyptian society.
Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government now pursues a two-pronged strategy: in addition to demolishing entire unplanned neighborhoods for development (or vanity) projects, the government is allowing Egyptians to register their residences and avoid demolition for a fee. It is unlikely that the current effort will succeed in eliminating or formalizing all of Egypt’s informal settlements, but will affect large segments of society, including many who will pay property and utility fees to the government for the first time.
The Egyptian government has demonstrated that it is prepared to persist in its plans to demolish unplanned neighborhoods despite popular resistance. For example, in 2017 Sisi’s government targeted Warraq Island, a large island home to nearly 100,000 residents just north of Cairo, to demolish its unplanned neighborhoods. The government had contracted an Emirati-Singaporean company to develop the island as a model for future development in Egypt. Residents reported that without warning security forces began demolishing houses with occupants still inside in July 2017. Residents clashed with security forces resulting in one death and nineteen injuries, in addition to thirty-one injured security force officers. Residents’ protests ultimately failed to stop the government’s development plans; in July 2020 the Supreme Council for Urban Planning and Development approved a decree that categorized Warraq Island as subject to a replanning process to curb informal settlements.
The passage of the “Law of Reconciliation in Certain Building Offenses and Legalization of Their Status” in April 2019, which establishes an avenue for Egyptians to “reconcile” and legalize unlicensed construction represents the latest push to eliminate informal settlements. The 2019 law is officially meant to upgrade infrastructure, mitigate unsafe construction, and stop encroachment on arable land. The law provides the basis for the government’s establishment of an avenue for Egyptians to formalize their “informal” property at a fee. Fees collected through the reconciliation process are to be used to fund infrastructure projects, development projects, and bodies charged with handling construction violations. In a speech, Sisi called this campaign twenty years overdue. The is the latest government attempt to halt unmitigated urban sprawl, reassert its own authority in construction and development, and collect revenue.
The situation has become tense as the state continues its commitment to eliminating informal housing and relocating its residents. In May 2020, the government ordered a ban on construction permits halting the construction of private housing, construction of informal housing included, while not impacting national construction projects. The freeze on private construction has left as many as 5 million construction workers without work. Like on Warraq Island, the campaign has incited demonstrations across the country. In Alexandria security forces fired tear gas canisters at protesters on 17 July 2020, who were demonstrating against state orders to evacuate their houses for demolition. Protesters chanted “we will not leave [our homes]”, and “we will not go.” Authorities were reportedly in discussions on building thousands of housing units in the area. Residents have also raised skepticism regarding the government's intentions alleging that it is looking to implement investment plans to benefit the regime at the residents’ expense. The crackdown on the demonstrations resulted in 42 arrests and the death of a newborn baby.
Demonstrations grew as the country approached the original deadline to submit a reconciliation request set by the government for 30 September 2020. A government spokesperson warned that the state would cut off electricity and water to apartments of people who failed to apply for reconciliation. On September 9, the Ministry of Interior shared via a Facebook post that police arrested 234 people for violating property and agricultural regulations. Video from a village where authorities demolished twenty-two buildings depicted residents throwing stones at the bulldozer and security forces. The campaign to demolish unplanned housing instigated a protest in Giza when a man was reportedly killed in a dispute with police. The man’s mother and sister claimed the police killed him after he refused an order to evacuate his residence because it violated state regulations. On September 20, as demonstrations broke out across Egypt, protesters outraged by the state demolishing buildings overturned a police car and set it on fire in al-Kuddaya, a village south of Cairo. Demonstrations against the State’s initiative to demolish informal buildings and settlements have not been restricted to one region or to urban centers. Rather, demonstrations have been spread out across Egypt, affecting urban centers and rural villages. Tadamun, an urbanist initiative, which recently published a report on injustice and inequality in Egypt’s urban planning policies has been one of the most prominent civil society organizations to criticize the displacement of inhabitants of informal areas. Though Egyptians have protested housing demolitions in the past, the combination of a pandemic, global economic crisis, and suppression of civil society creates a uniquely tense situation—the state’s initiative poses a serious threat to the country’s stability.
The government of Egypt realized the acute threat swift implementation of the policy posed and has since postponed the deadline to apply for reconciliation multiple times. Pushing implementation to March reduced the shock that the September 2020 deadline would have produced. However, the process to apply for reconciliation was expensive and convoluted. To apply residents were required to present their national ID card, proof of the applicant’s status in regard to the building violation, proof that the violation in question occurred prior to a specific timeframe, two copies of the building’s architectural plans approved by a union engineer or engineering office, a copy of sketches attached to the building permit, and a receipt of the building examination fee. The fees varied between LE 50 and LE 2,000 per-square-meter, a price prohibitively expensive for many Egyptians living in informal housing, though government officials have stressed rates have been reduced to varying degrees across the country’s governorates and NGOs have provided some assistance to low-income Egyptians.
The state intends to relocate residents displaced by the demolitions into new urban communities. Tadamun referred to displacement from informal areas due to public projects or safety as one of the main sources of conflict between inhabitants and the state. In preparation for the potential relocation of hundreds of thousands of families, the government is constructing housing units financed by the World Bank. Fares Gomaa, who returned to his neighborhood after being relocated to a new urban community, recounted that he now pays a monthly rent whereas before he owned his property and collected rent from tenants. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Transportation raised metro fare prices in 2020, further impacting the ability of dislocated residents to access jobs and services. Assem al-Gazzar, Minister of Housing, Utilities, and Urban Communities, announced that some relocated to public housing would be expected to take out a mortgage for the unit. Displacement from established informal areas carries tremendous economic and social costs.
The government is currently expanding the Ring Road, a major freeway that encircles Greater Cairo. The Road’s construction thus far has necessitated demolitions across six Cairo neighborhoods. The governor of Cairo reported that 5883 families had received compensation for relocation. The governor did not specify whether those displaced inhabited informal residences, had applied for reconciliation, or lived on formal property. The government has promised that those displaced by the construction will be compensated, though the state has a history of not delivering on compensation for displacement.
Egypt passed the final deadline to submit a building reconciliation request on 31 March 2021. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Local Development detailed that the state had collected LE 17.7 billion from reconciliation requests and that the government aims to collect over LE 70 billion upon the completion of the reconciliation process. By 30 March 2021, the government received over 2.8 million reconciliation requests. Fees associated with reconciliation function as a tax on people who submit requests as the funds raised through reconciliation are supposedly intended to support development. A committee formed in March to determine the punishment for having failed to submit a reconciliation request has yet to release its recommendation at the time of writing.
The demolitions pursued by the government of Egypt eliminate whole communities, many of which are decades old. Forcibly moving people from informal housing to new urban communities interrupts those peoples’ livelihoods and ability to access work as alternative housing is often distant from employment opportunities. The campaign reasserts the government’s authority over housing and construction, at the expense of communities that had quietly encroached on it. Reconciliation also acts as a tax on people in informal housing, the funds of which have been reportedly promised to development projects. Additionally, state efforts to demolish neighborhoods and relocate their inhabitants has repeatedly encountered protests. Continuation of the state’s current actions threaten Egypt’s stability in the short term and creates long-term resentment. Egypt’s rapid population growth is further likely to complicate and halt the state’s efforts to permanently eliminate informal settlements. The twin policies of demolition and reconciliation, if enacted in full, have the potential to reshape and destabilize Egyptian society. If past precedent is any indication, the government of Egypt’s current campaign to eliminate informal housing will not succeed. Failure to reach the initiative’s goal, however, does not mean that the government’s latest foray into land-use reform won’t have far-reaching consequences for society.
Since March, the government has been slow in proceeding with the policy’s next steps and has not taken decisive action against people who did not apply to reconcile their residence. Several key questions on how the government will proceed on the policy of reconciliation remain: what to do about multi-family properties where not all residents applied for reconciliation, will those who applied for reconciliation be protected from projects such as the Ring Road expansion, what are the long-term social and economic impacts of the reconciliation policy, and what will the public reaction be when the government takes punitive action against those who did not apply for reconciliation.