Egypt: Buried alive; trapped by poverty and neglect in Cairo's informal settlements

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"We are buried alive under the dust"

Fathy, resident of Haret Ahmed Nader in Al-Duwayqa

Between 8:30am and 9:20am on 6 September 2008, huge boulders and rocks crashed down Al-Muqattam Hill in Al-Duwayqa onto Ezbet Bekhit in the Manshiyet Nasser neighbourhood of east Cairo, home to around a million of the city's poorest residents. By the time the terrifying roar subsided, 107 people were dead and 58 lay injured, according to officials. Survivors put the toll much higher, saying that the bodies of their relatives and entire families remain buried under the rubble. Nearly 100 buildings were destroyed.

Survivors searched desperately for their relatives and neighbours - dead or alive - with the help of a small number of civil protection personnel. They poured out their anger at the authorities for failing to prevent the rockslide or relocate residents, despite repeated warnings about the impending rockslide. Survivors threw stones at visiting officials and clashed with the riot police cordon. They believed that no one had listened to them because they were seen as poor, powerless and less than human.

Studies initiated by the government following a deadly 1993 rock fall in the neighbouring Al- Zabalyn informal settlement (slum - ashwa'iyat meaning "random") had identified danger zones all around Al-Muqattam Hill, including the area in Manshiyet Nasser devastated by the 2008 rockslide. Residents living in the vicinity of the hill had informed the authorities that cracks were appearing in the walls of their homes, and they feared for their safety. A contractor hired by local authorities to secure rocks on the hill repeatedly warned the authorities about the high risk of a rock fall.

Despite all the warnings months before the rockslide, the authorities failed to evacuate the impoverished residents and provide them with temporary or alternative housing. On 8 September, two days after the Al-Duwayqa disaster, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak ordered the relocation of survivors into new two-bedroom flats in the Suzanne Mubarak dwellings, part of an upgrading project in Al-Duwayqa (see Chapter 3). On 11 September, Egypt's Speaker of Parliament began a speech in parliament by saying: "How similar today is to yesterday!" referring to the rock fall of 1993. The Minister of Housing, Utilities and Urban Development emphasized "fate", as according to him the population was just about to be relocated into the new flats.

Over the next few days, survivors began to move in to the Suzanne Mubarak dwellings. The Egyptian Red Crescent and charities helped to equip some but not all of the flats. This welcome and quick response was marred by irregularities in the allocation of the flats, including alleged corruption.

In the days following the rockslide, the Ministry of Social Solidarity offered compensation of up to 5,000 Egyptian pounds (EGP - approximately US$900) to families for each member killed, and up to EGP1,000 for each person injured.

The Egyptian authorities failed to respect human rights standards in their responses in the aftermath of the rockslide. People living in areas deemed unsafe in Al-Duwayqa and Ezbet Bekhit were moved in a manner which breached the international standards that states must observe while carrying out evictions. These standards require states to have procedural safeguards in place. Even when evacuation is warranted to protect residents' lives and safety, states must act in a manner that is reasonable in the circumstances and proportionate to the risk of harm. Within a month of the disaster, the authorities demolished 1,025 homes in Al-Duwayqa and Ezbet Bekhit with inadequate notice provided only orally, not in writing, which undermines peoples' right to appeal. They made no attempt to consult the affected communities before or after the demolitions about the evictions or plans for resettlement. The process used to identify beneficiaries of alternative housing led to some people being left homeless and to discrimination against women in certain cases. In part, homelessness and discrimination was the result of a lack of rules or guidelines for the enumeration committees sent into informal settlements by the local authorities to identify residents eligible for alternative housing. The authorities have also failed to provide all those living in alternate housing with even a minimum degree of legal security of tenure, which would guarantee them with legal protection against forced eviction, harassment and other threats.

Forced evictions, which are prohibited by international human rights law (see Chapter 4), continued in Al-Duwayqa (for instance, in Atfet Al-Moza Street in Al-Herafyyin area) and have been ongoing in Establ Antar, an informal settlement in the south of Cairo identified as dangerous by the authorities after the rockslide. The authorities provided families in Establ Antar with no information about the eviction, on the possible dangers or why they needed to be relocated immediately. The authorities also made no attempt to consult affected families on their alternative housing either before or after the evictions. More than 173 homes built on the top and bottom of Al-Zahraa Hill were demolished in this settlement. The families were resettled to a remote residential area in 6 October City, south-west of Giza, far from their social networks, schools and sources of income. The threat of more evictions remains. Immediately after the Al-Duwayqa rockslide, Egypt's Public Prosecutor opened an investigation into the circumstances leading to the deaths and the possible criminal responsibility of local and central government officials. However, at the time of writing in September 2009, no findings have been disclosed and no one has been held to account for the deaths and injuries.

Governments cannot be held responsible for every disaster that leads to loss of life and injuries. However, if the authorities know there is a real and immediate threat to the right to life and security, as was the case in Al-Duwayqa, they are obliged to take all necessary measures that could reasonably be expected to avoid such risks.

Other parts of Manshiyet Nasser remain at risk of rock falls, but the government has not taken any steps to begin consultations on possible relocation options. The communities have not been provided with any information or opportunities to participate in decision-making or been consulted on possible resettlement options. In Haret Ahmed Nader and Al-Shohba areas in Al-Duwayqa, for example, residents told Amnesty International that the danger of rock falls haunts them daily.

The growth of informal settlements in Egypt has taken place for many reasons, including the unavailability of affordable housing. In 2000, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expressed its concern over "the massive housing problems faced by the Egyptian population" and urged Egypt to "combat the acute housing shortage by adopting a strategy and a plan of action and by building or providing, low-cost rental housing units, especially for the vulnerable and low income groups." In 2009, the UN Arab Human Development Report estimated that 41 per cent of people in Egypt were living in poverty. Since 1952, the Egyptian government has been building "economic" (popular) housing for "those of limited income".10 In the 1970s and 1980s construction of new urban communities in the desert intensified to absorb the burgeoning population, including 10th Ramadan City, Sadat City, 15th May City, 6 October City, Al-Nahda City, El Minya el-Gedida and Asyout el-Gedida. In 2001, the Ministry of Planning estimated demand for low-income housing units by 2017 would be 3.7 million out of the total of 5.3 million units needed. In October 2005, the Ministry of Housing, Utilities and Urban Development launched the National Housing Project to tackle the housing problem in Egypt. The six-year project aims to provide 500,000 housing units to young people "of limited income". This is to be achieved through the allocation to each beneficiary of a plot of land in new cities, a grant of EGP15,000 (approximately US$2,700), and other help to obtain mortgages or in paying the instalments for the finished unit.

According to the Ministry, 145,852 people applied. However, the housing units remain unaffordable for many people due to high construction costs and mortgage rates. Moreover, between 1997 and June 2008, the Cairo Governorate allocated 7,699 housing units in Cairo's new cities to families who had been evicted administratively; 8,801 to people after their neighbourhoods were upgraded or degraded, such as Zenhoum; 2,064 to newly wed couples; 3,879 to people whose homes were in imminent danger of collapsing; and 1,421 to people in an "extreme situation of need".