What does the balance sheet look like for the inhabitants of Aswan after their city received the UNESCO City of Peace Award last month? Dena Rashed
heads south to investigate
Click to view caption|
From top: the tourist market, a favourite spot for Egyptians and foreigners, awaits development plans; the new minibus station; frustrated workers at the Industrial District
In contrast to the hustle of Cairo, Aswan is a serene city. Situated 900 kilometres south of the capital, it has always had a special kind of charm, enhanced by its strong Pharaonic heritage and the influence of its Nubian environment. Dubbed the "Jewel of the Nile", the city has long served as Egypt's gateway to African culture. It can boast a number of remarkable sights, such as Elephantine Island, the temples of Satet and Khnum, and the even more distinctive complexes at Philae and Kalabsha.
The tangible presence of the ancient land of Nubia, now admirably explained by the exhibits in the Nubian Museum, also add to the city's uniqueness.
Over the past few years, the local powers that be have taken it upon themselves to develop Aswan as a model residential and touristic city, that can provide a clean and well-organised environment both for its inhabitants and for visiting tourists. This effort was rewarded this year when Aswan was named Africa's City of Peace by UNESCO. According to Costanza De Simone, expert in cultural heritage from UNESCO Cairo office, this is an honorary prize granted every two years to a city that has succeeded in improving the living standards of its citizens and has created a better and a cleaner environment.
Aswan is the second Egyptian city to have won this prize, after Sharm El-Sheikh in 2001. "We presented a file to UNESCO a year ago detailing the development achieved in Aswan, and then we forgot about it," said Samir Youssef, the governor of Aswan. "We were notified that we had won the prize last month."
The file submitted by the city included reports on their efforts to improve the urban environment and the living conditions of its people. "Our biggest challenge was to get rid of the shanty areas, improve the living conditions of the people, and focus on the education and health sectors," said Youssef.
However, making this development plan come true has placed a heavy burden on many of the city's citizens. Youssef himself acknowledges that in order to realise this public goal, many private interests have had to be overcome. During a tour by the Weekly of the areas where intensive "rehabilitation" has been undertaken, many citizens came forward to voice their resentment.
Downtown Aswan at noon. Many freshly painted shops are closed. "These are mechanics shops that have been shut down," said our guide from the governorate. "Their business has been transferred out of town to an industrial estate."
The Industrial District to which he refers is situated southeast of the city on 222 feddans, and comprises 477 units for businesses working with electricity and electronics, mechanics, and fabric weaving and spinning. Although the plan to build the district was launched as long ago as 1992, contractors only started work in 1999. The infrastructure was finished in 2001 and the units became operational in 2003. Even today, the only road connecting the city to the industrial district is long and badly surfaced, and constitutes the number one obstacle to the success of this ambitious project. The shops are neatly planned, and traditional in design. But despite these efforts, the workers are not satisfied.
"I had to close my shop downtown, and was forcibly moved to this area," Mahmoud Abdel- Aziz, a car mechanic, told the Weekly. "We are too far away from our clients and so we are losing both their custom and our profits. If your car breaks down, you need someone nearby to fix it, don't you? To tow a car out here from the city costs LE100, which is a lot to pay before you even start getting your car fixed."
So while the Industrial District has succeeded in clearing the city of the noise and pollution associated with the workshops, it is the workers who are paying the price in lost business and reduced income.
"I barely have any clients anymore," mechanic Nabil Boulos confided, in between two puffs on his water pipe. "It is too far for them to come, and besides that, they have allowed a number of workshops to continue to operate down town. We don't have enough work. There's nothing to do now except smoke shisha all day."
And that is not all. Workers claim that the water supply in the new industrial district is cut at 5pm every evening.
"We find it difficult to continue working in these conditions," said Hassan Abdel-Rehim, a metal worker. "There are no adequate means of transportation either, to get people to and from their work out here. Life just gets more difficult all the time."
To top it all, rental rates are high, and some of the conditions attached to them harsh. "We were allocated our unit five years ago," explained shop owner Adli Bayoumi, "but the area only became functional last year. Despite that, the governorate is demanding that we pay the accumulated rent for the past five years."
Shop owners are currently hoping that a Dispute Settlement Committee will waive these arrears, as has happened recently in similar cases in industrial areas in Ismailia and Assiut governorates.
According to Adli Anis, another worker in the district, "many workers don't have the money to pay all the back rent. We can only hope that they will listen to us."
But head of the Industrial District Abdel-Nour Dawoud argues that many of the problems in the area are caused not by bad planning and mismanagement, but by the Workers Association itself. "They elected someone who did not know how to voice their complaints properly," he told the Weekly.
Dawoud believes the project is a great success, and simply needs time to prove itself. "We have provided the workers with five minibuses and a bus, but they don't use them much, because they don't have regular working hours," he explained. "As for the rents, their representatives are working on it in Cairo, and we are trying to help them."
However, Dawoud's arguments fail to soothe the frustration of the workers, and an argument erupts. At the end of the day, the basic problem is that the workers feel alienated from the city, and wish they could return to its busy streets.
Governor Youssef says he respects people's attachment to their homes and work places, but that as far as he is concerned, "we left no one without a second option. We traded their land or shop for another one immediately."
Another major project undertaken to upgrade the city was to widen the streets. "During the construction of the Aswan High Dam, many worker from different governorates came to the city and started building shanty houses," Youssef recalled. "We decided it was time to provide them with better housing, and at the same time widen the narrow streets of the city."
This sounds fine, but in reality, it meant widespread evictions for many people.
In an attempt to solve the problems arising from their policy, the governorate compensated some of the citizens affected by giving them land complete with basic infrastructure, payment to be made over a 10-year instalment plan. In the meantime, the shanty areas have been swept away, the streets cleaned up, and a number of artistic touches added to the roads. Those who did not receive compensation have been left in a bureaucratic wasteland.
The city also wanted to improve the organisation of the minibus traffic. Minibuses are the basic means of transportation in Aswan. As in other Egyptian cities, they have been a chronic problem, and efforts to impose order on them are rarely successful. The Aswan approach was to set up a big minibus station not far outside the centre of town. All minibuses travelling into or out of Aswan city are now regulated by the government, and all their routes have been clearly defined. "Now we have discipline," said Mosaad Awadallah, a minibus driver. "We know where we are going, and we have the second largest station in Egypt."
But a closer look reveals a number of glitches. The drivers' problem is very similar to the problem of the workers in the industrial district: namely, the lack of strong representation of their demands. "We have the right to help organise the routes," said Osman Mahdi, a driver. "But some of us are currently prevented from entering the city, which creates a serious problem. And when we have complaints, there is simply no one who will listen."
At the new wholesale grocery market that has just opened for business, there is room for all the vendors who have been moved from the old downtown market area. But while some are satisfied with their new location and have settled in easily, others are not happy with the changes.
"It's clean, it's close, and the facilities are appropriate for the nature of our business," said Hassan Hasan, a wholesale vendor and the owner of the first shop to become functional in the market.
However, other vendors who were late in making their payment got shops that face the mountain to the back of the complex, and still have a long wait ahead of them before they can get their businesses up and going again. These disadvantages have to be set against the drawbacks of the crowded old downtown market, where there was no space for new stalls, thus reducing competition. Now, there is a lot of free space, and the old vendors will have to get used to this too.
"I worked at the old market for 15 years and I had a very distinctive place," said Abdu Ahmed, a wholesale vendor. "But now, with 72 new shops, we are on a level footing with any newcomer who can afford to pay LE30,000 for a 30-year lease."
The tourist market meanwhile, which is the favourite place for those who want to stroll and shop at night, is still awaiting details of its development plan. With its central location, its narrow alleyways, and its small traditional shops selling spices, henna, and galabeyas, as well as souvenirs of the city, it is a major attraction for both Egyptian and foreign tourists. But according to one clothes vendor who preferred to remain anonymous, "we have heard we are going to be moved to a mall on the outskirts of the city next May. This will ruin our business for sure. People come here specially to enjoy the market, because it has many unique features that are not found anywhere else." Although the vendor admitted that the market would be more spacious in its new location, he believes this will be achieved at the expense of the shop owners.
However, according to Hamid Mahmoud, the media officer of the governorate, the plan is to re- organise the existing market, not to relocate it lock stock and barrel. "We are simply going to move the kiosks that don't have licences, but not the shops," Mahmoud explained. "We will provide nice premises for those who are moved to a mall, and we will make the present market inaccessible to cars, turning it into a pedestrian area."
On the basis of our investigation, citizen satisfaction with all the changes down at Aswan seems debatable, and participation clearly leaves much to be desired. But as far as officials are concerned, the show must go on. Doubtless the fact that they have just been named Africa's City of Peace by UNESCO will simply strengthen their resolve.
Aswan in numbers:
ï City population: 239,288.
ï Total number of primary schools: 96.
Total number of preparatory schools: 52.
Total number of secondary schools: 9.
Total number of technical schools: 11.
Total number of hotel schools: 9.
ï Aswan has 13 youth centres, 16 sports clubs, 24 playgrounds, 14 open playgrounds and 16 libraries.
ï The city has six faculties, including the specialisations of education, arts, engineering, sciences, social affairs, Islamic studies and two institutes for social works and energy.
ï Total number of hotels: 17.
ï Total number of floating hotels: 265.