Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 February 2004
Issue No. 677
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Time bombs in our basements

The rubble may have been cleared, but the ramifications of an 11-storey building's collapse look to linger for a while. Gihan Shahine sifts through a corrupt and ineffective housing licensing system

It has been a tough week for governors and district administration officials. An 11-storey building that fell like a house of cards in the eastern Cairo suburb of Nasr City on 26 January -- claiming the lives of 16 people, mostly rescue workers -- has focussed unprecedented attention on the seemingly rampant corruption amongst district administration officials, contractors and landlords.

Investigations continue to probe whether the building buckled because of the fire that began in an appliance store on the ground floor an hour before the collapse, or whether something was seriously wrong with the building's structure in the first place.

The owner, Abul-Ruy Hussein, was arrested on charges of illegally adding six floors to the structure, which was originally licensed for just five floors and a mezzanine when it was built in 1981. Bahaaeddin Ibrahim, the former head of the Nasr City district administration, was also arrested when investigations revealed that a demolition order -- granted 12 years ago because of the extra floors -- was never actually executed. A travel ban was also imposed on officials at the district's engineering department while investigations are ongoing.

Just a week before the building collapsed, residents had complained about renovations taking place at the appliance store, which, they claimed, endangered the building's safety. Tragically, on the very same day the building toppled, an engineer from the district office reported it was perfectly safe.

Just the latest in a series of building collapses, the tragedy has triggered public ire, as well as much press commentary on the government's flawed and corruption- laden licensing system. Responding to the public outcry, Prime Minister Atef Ebeid ordered governors nationwide to immediately identify all buildings in violation of local zoning regulations, including the addition of unauthorised floors and the illegal use of garages as storehouses and shops.

On Sunday, Cairo Governor Abdel-Rehim Shehata ordered the immediate evacuation of unlicensed storehouses. On Tuesday, 40 garages were reportedly evacuated in Nasr City alone. Although Shehata also called for the immediate demolition of all unauthorised floors, Mohamed Mahmoud El-Mo'ayed, head of the Nasr City district administration office, said, "only uninhabited floors will be removed, except [when removing them would] prove harmful to a building's foundations."

Shehata's order has thus far resulted in a series of demolition orders around Cairo. It has also catalysed interrogations of a few minor officials.

Chaos, meanwhile, reigned at district administrative offices this week when a clash erupted between governors, on the one hand, and the Justice and Housing Ministries, on the other, over an amendment to the unified building law, which suggests shifting the licensing authority from governorates to the Housing Ministry. As a result, although droves of people descended on district engineering departments to report building violations, officials refrained from issuing any building or demolition orders at all.

Adel Hassan, who lives on 27 Mustafa El-Nahhas Street in Nasr City, said, "the ground floor of our building and the garage have been turned into shops and storehouses, and district officials have actually given them licences in blatant violation of the law. Does a fire have to start, or the building fall down over our heads before officials take action?" Hassan asked in anger.

Sawsan Abdel-Halim was equally enraged as she waited to meet the head of the Nasr City district office.

Abdel-Halim, who lives in a building adjacent to the one that collapsed, was evacuated from her home after the tragedy so that nearby structures could be inspected and declared safe. But according to Abdel-Halim, "the government never actually sent any engineers, and we had to get private experts to examine the block at our own expense."

Abdel-Halim said the building she lived in "also has three shops, including a storehouse for ready-made clothes". She said, with a note of cynicism, "let's see if the governorate will be true to its word and evict them. Unfortunately the government does not move unless tragedy strikes."

A 2003 parliamentary housing committee report says only 46 per cent of the 20,000 demolition orders issued in Cairo since 1992 have actually been implemented. Moreover, the report says only 34 per cent of the 33,288 structures ordered refurbished in Cairo actually were. Nationwide, according to the report, almost half of the total 111,875 demolition orders remain unexecuted.

El-Mo'ayed said that in Nasr City, 1,193 of the demolition orders issued since 1996 are still awaiting execution, while 120 garages have been turned into storehouses in violation of building regulations. Nasr City municipal council officials, meanwhile, claimed that up to 95 per cent of the suburb's buildings are in violation of one or more local zoning rules. According to Nasr City's original, half-century old, urban planning scheme, buildings should not rise higher than six floors, nor occupy more than 60 per cent of the plot of land on which they are built. Putting garages to commercial use is considered a building code violation.

The parliamentary report blames administrative delays and loopholes in the law for hindering the demolition of unlicensed floors. One major obstacle, according to the report, is that there is no special police department assigned to carry out demolition orders. El-Mo'ayed told Al-Ahram Weekly that, "to execute a demolition order, we always request security forces' help to curb potential violence on the part of landlords and residents." At best, he said, that was a very long-drawn-out procedure.

"Landlords make use of those administrative delays to quickly add and sell the extra floors," El-Mo'ayed said. "And when those floors are inhabited, it just becomes impractical to go through with the demolition order."

Instead, the district engineering department would examine the building. If it proved safe, the landlord would be asked to pay a fine in return for "reconciliation" with the government. According to 1992's Law 25, such reconciliation would also provide legality for the extra- unlicensed floors as well as abrogate the demolition order. Fines would range from LE500-1200 per metre -- a handsome sum that governorate officials said ended up being used to build housing for low-income families.

In the aftermath of yet another building collapse in Heliopolis in 1996, however, Prime Minister Atef Ebeid issued a military decree abolishing the landlord- government reconciliation system.

Still, as Nasr City municipal council deputy head, Abdallah Abul-Hassan, put it, "buildings kept rising up, garages turned into shops, and demolition orders were hardly carried out."

One typical scenario, Abul-Hassan said, involved "district engineers filing the violation in the building's dossier in order to avoid liability in case it collapsed, but never actually submitting the report to their superiors." District engineers are usually low-paid, sighed Abul- Hassan, and "making money via bribes helps them earn a good living".

Administrative officials also use loopholes in the law as pretexts to halt demolitions. "District officials may claim funds are not available to tear down unlicensed buildings, or that police is not providing the security forces needed to carry out a demolition order." The law also states that a demolition order cannot be carried out if an apartment is locked, explained Abul-Hassan.

Parliament will be discussing amendments to the unified building law in just two weeks time. These will include suggestions to abolish landlord-government reconciliation, and establish a specialised police force to handle demolition orders, as well as specialised courts to quickly settle licensing and building disputes. Municipal council head, Sahar Othman, insisted that these amendments, albeit necessary, would not make any headway, however, unless "those in charge of applying the law are changed".

For Othman, that means "shifting the licensing authority to the Ministry of Housing. The issue at hand is corruption, not flawed laws," Othman said. "The law, after all, grants high-ranking officials the absolute right to carry out demolition orders, but for personal interests, they just don't use that right."

According to Othman, district officials' desk drawers are packed with bundles of residents' reports on building violations. "There are at least 600 time bombs in the form of cafés in Nasr City basements, as well as hundreds of restaurants and shops in garages, where not a single safety measure exists, posing a serious threat to the inhabitants. District officials are fully aware of these blatant violations," Othman maintained, "and still don't take any action against them. They only move when a catastrophe takes place."

Nasr City municipal council health committee head, Ahmed Shawki, said that for almost 20 years now, the "district administration office has neither licensed garages-turned-into-shops, nor shut them down, so as to leave the door open for bribery".

Othman said, "the law should grant local councils a mandate to question, not just supervise, district officials' performance. Otherwise many similar tragedies will take place, and innocent people will always pay the price."

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