Manshiet Nasser is among the oldest shanty towns in Cairo. Are housing problems, asks Amira El-Noshokaty
, finally coming to an end there
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Clockwise from top: houses hanging on the cliff; Ali, a resident; the narrow alleys of the neighbour-hood; children from Manshiet Nasser; the open-air theatre
Manshiet Nasser -- a 10,000 sq km area of which half is inhabited -- is a literally handmade town, an example of the survival techniques to which the desperate resort in the absence of any other options. A Fatimid limestone quarry partly evacuated to the Moqattam Hills to make room for the Autostrad in 1960, the neighbourhood is set at the back of a limestone cliff, lying on and around the elevation; it is flanked on the west by the Salah Salem highway, on the north by Nasr City's Tayaran Street.
Since President Gamal Abdel-Nasser's subsequent decree that the by then densely populated neighbourhood should be connected to the water and sewerage systems -- hence the name -- the area has developed along chaotic lines. According to the latest study, the 2001 A Report on the General Status Quo of Manshiet Nasser, the population is approximately 17,000, 52 per cent of whom are illiterate. Those of them who are employed work in crafts and administrative work (65 per cent), in private business (31 per cent) or in the rubbish-collection and - processing industry (14 per cent).
Aside from the fragmentary, unstable nature of their infrastructure and the frequent lack of basic amenities, housing has been the main problem facing Manshiet Nasser residents since 1972, when it became an attraction point to the garbage collectors of Cairo. Periodically when its inhabitants have grown in number, carving their own living space into the hill, the government chased them out, contesting the legality of their housing and their right to the land on which they were built. In 1984, an attempt to legitimise their presence was aborted when the rates at which the government offered them legal contracts to the land proved unaffordable.
Frozen until 1992, the project was reopened but no more than 487 cases were able to obtain legal ownership of the land on which they have lived. This left only the subdivision of Ezbet Bekhit with 1,400 legal contracts. Since then, however, a great deal has changed in Manshiet Nasser.
"The German Technical Cooperation (GTZ)," Khalil Shaath, GTZ area manager explained, "started working in Manshiet Nasser in 1998 implementing participatory development programme. Backed by a German-Egyptian protocol, we joined efforts with the Institute of Culture Affairs Middle East and North Africa (ICA-MENA) to implement a programme of participatory sustainable development, contracting the Integrated Development Group (IDG) for a Local Area Action Plan (LAAP)." The plan was implemented in districts 2-5 (Al-Masaken, Asfal Al-Razaz, Al-Gamaa and Al-Meaadessa) in May- December 2005 -- a process that required the collaboration of the German Development Bank (KFW and the Cairo Governorate as well as national and local authorities as well as local communities).
"Development is like a machine with many cogs revolving at the same time. Our mission is to make sure they are working in tandem," Shaath went on. "But there is no easy way to ensure that a given programme can be replicated; unless a programme can be applied again and again by the authorities, all across the country, it will be pointless." The project aims to ensure the building of a complete infrastructure, to which the KFW allocated LE120 million; secondly, it aims to give residents unalienable rights to their land -- a project it hopes to achieve with the help of GTZ in four planning zones and the government-implemented LAAP in five planning zones out of nine zones. "First come the legal plans," Shaath elaborates, "followed by committees to legalise the residents' present status, then committees for issuing primal costs, and a higher committee for pricing, and finally the complaint committee. In the end it's a win-win situation where Manshiet Nasser residents are concerned. So long as they manage to own their land and the government is paid, that ensures security."
The price, he said, is entirely the government's call -- and if a given resident cannot afford to pay it all at once, it can be paid in instalments over a period of up to 10 years. "Given the fact that Manshiet Nasser has the second lowest land prices in Cairo -- LE200 per sq m, compared to informal prices such as LE450 in the nearby Zaraieb area, for example -- this seems a reasonable compromise. If people are still having problems, they can contact the complaint committee about reducing the price that was offered to them."
Back in Al-Meaadessa, where he has lived since 1960, Hassan Ali sat quietly in his grocery store off a small road; his father, he explains, was a construction worker who helped pave the first road in Moqattam. Ali and his neighbours built their houses themselves, charting roads and introducing the pipelines: "when people come to live here, they bring along their relatives and former neighbours; for solidarity. When they opened the door to land ownership, the government demanded LE40-200 per sq m, while the original land price, when we first owned it was LE2 per metre, how is that possible?" Later, when they realised the value this land could command for its location, they thought they could relocate the place's 250,000 inhabitants and invest it. We protested, pleaded, made a video tape explaining our situation and demanding our rights, and finally we filed a court case that we won; only then was the partnership approach adopted in development efforts."
Partnership is something he believes in, despite his concern that development projects for Manshiet Nasser should be on a larger more comprehensive scale. Most NGOs, he says, help only their own tribe, which could be a single street of families -- a failure that will often reduce impact of partnership.
A collective spirit is even more relevant to areas -- marked as danger zones -- where, due to the erosion of the cliff by water and rubbish fumes, landfall poses serious risks. Such areas, according to Shaath, will be evacuated to Al-Nahda and 15 May City, while work is being done, on a parallel line, to establish a sewerage system and reduce the threat to the rock face.
At Al-Masaken, a long disused part of the health unit has been shut down now that it was decided relocation would be the best answer to health hazards; that part of the unit had been too close to landfall to be useful, while the Cultural Palaces open-air theatre, only 50m away, is safe. More generally limestone treatment has not proven completely safe with regard to residential areas.
Lack of collective spirit is, according to the ICA- MENA Cairo Branch Supervisor Madeleine Farag, among the greatest constraints on development; it is reflected in lack of authenticity and flexibility. Hence the LAAP project where the Participatory Rapid Appraisal (PRA) as well as the company and Objective Reflective Interpretive Levels (ORID) approaches and methodologies are used to insure one of the few development interventions in partnership with the local residents. "A shanty town this may be," Farag says, "but it is tribal laws that rule. The residents are essentially of a tribal disposition: they are a hodgepodge of the Egyptian population suddenly remembered after Al-Azhar Tunnel made their place of residence a vital part of the urban landscape."
Due to the nature of the land, she goes on, no ambulance can reach the houses, built on top of each other and mostly connected by stairways rather than streets: "Local transportation consists of reconstituted old jeeps without licence plates, driven by teenagers. Due to the minute traces of governmental services, as well as the police protection, it became a safe haven for outlaws and violent disputes, drug dealers and runaways; thus the tribal sense became more forceful. Nor are people generally all that open to development, because they know that everything comes with a price. 'Gender' in many cases denotes simply homosexuality, while most projects, for their part, neglect the socio-cultural dimension, which is key to sustainability."
The weakness and mutability of the infrastructure go hand in hand: if sewerage brings down part of building, it is simply rebuilt. According to Alaa El-Zanati, ICA-MENA field officer, the main local activities for women, out of which 30 per cent are breadwinners, is watching television; the young's refuge from unemployment is the café and 70 per cent of them have mobile phones. The majority have access to illegal satellite cables, with an informal channel broadcasting local weddings. Rubbish burning results in most residents' suffering from eye and chest illness. Needless to say that Manshiet Nasser tops the government and NGO agendas for sustainable development, from infrastructure to literacy classes, programmes have been targeting one of the most controversial and complex residential areas in the country.
For Hoda Salah, owner of one of the neighbourhood's most successful nurseries, the situation calls for it: "violent disputes are the greatest vice. Female genital mutilation is on the rise, too, because when something is officially forbidden, it automatically becomes more desirable. School teachers are transferred to Manshiet Nasser as a punishment; so they seldom actually teach, which raises drop-out rates even further. Since many of the literacy class teachers are themselves illiterate, illiteracy rates are on the rise too. The schools are open in the summer for summer school, it's true, but the teachers are away so what's the point." Is it better to demolish and rebuild the whole area on the Doweaa model of Suzanne Mubarak or to employ the LAAP? Salah believes it depends on which part of Manshiet Nasser is to be developed.
"For some areas," she elaborated, "those overtaken by outlaws and drug dealers, the Doweaa model seems excellent. In other areas, where flats double as living space and trade outlets, that wouldn't work; giving them a better place to live, you'd be depriving them of their income in the same breath." Projects must keep cultural differences in perspective, she added. "Development projects must address the culture as well as everything else, otherwise they cannot be sustainable. You saw it happen in Doweaa: beautiful houses with gardens and everything; after a short while, the neighbours were fighting for control of the public gardens, picking the flowers and using the balconies as private bakeries."
Manshiet Nasser: development in brief
2006 -- A pilot project for implementing hydroponic planting (growing plants without soil) on roof tops. The project, the result of a partnership between Hans-Seidel Foundation and Egypt's State Information Service, concerns planting green vegetables and fruits as an income-generating activity to 99 families in Cairo and Alexandria.
2005 -- Suzanne Mubarak's housing project in Doweaa district in Manshiet Nasser, reaches its fourth phase. The project, which began five years ago, replaced the shanty areas of Doweaa with apartments for nominal fees and instalments. It provided 3,300 housing units for costs that reached LE190 million.
2002 -- "From Young People to Young People", a comprehensive development programme promoting drug awareness, was implemented in Al-Herafeen district in Manshiet Nasser. The programme, targeting working children, their families as well as the workshop owners, was the result of a partnership between the National Council For Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM), the regional branch of the United Nations Office For Drug Control and Crime Prevention (UNDCP), psychiatrists, sociologists and Non-Governmental Organisations.