The great facilitator
Minister of Housing, Utilities and Urban Development Ahmed El-Maghrabi tells Assem El-Kersh and Dena Rashed he does not have a magic wand to end the ever lasting crisis of housing
Ahmed El-Maghrabi is not your average minister, and Egypt is not your average country, and neither is its capital. It is a land of 80 million people, and Egypt's cities in particular have experienced acute housing problems over recent decades and responsibility has tended to be spread between different ministries.
The population density in Cairo alone is 40,000 per km2 for the eight million people who live there, according to the 2006 CAPMAS census. Yet, in Greater Cairo, which includes Cairo, Giza and Qalioubiya, the population has reached more than 18 million people.
Ministers taking over the demanding Ministry of Housing have to answer to a lot of different constituencies. The fact that finding an apartment in the city remains one of the most pressing problems for all those who wish to tie the knot makes it the number one problem that needs to be solved by any minister.
As for the development of the capital, plans have been ambitious but clashes have also been many. Moving an inch away from home is not always an easy decision to take, let alone moving house or neighbourhood to meet the demands of urban planning.
Looking at the future of housing in the Egypt of 2020 requires an examination of the problems facing the present minister, El-Maghrabi, who is optimistic that such problems can be solved. "People wonder why I smile all the time," he says. "They do not realise that I am an optimist, though not an 'over-optimist', and I am not afraid to show it."
El-Maghrabi sits in the left-hand part of his spacious office in front of a huge screen connected to a laptop on the circular table in front of him. He is not a fan of desks, he says. "I am much more comfortable at tables, and I believe it makes other people more comfortable as well.
While the lay-out of the office does not necessarily have a comforting effect on many, some might say that the circular nature of the table does resemble the conversation. In fact, El-Maghrabi's ambitions might be considered to be similar to those of other ministers of housing, as he revealed in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.
El-Maghrabi has been in office since January 2006, and since then he has had a very full agenda. He identifies four main challenges in particular that include urban development, drinking water and sewerage, housing, and the development of desert areas. Of these four challenges, El-Maghrabi believes urban development will be the one where he can achieve most as a minister.
"We are moving in the right direction when it comes to plans for Egypt and Cairo in 2020 and 2050," he says. "The real challenge is the sewerage system." Of the latter, El-Maghrabi says that while much has been done there is still a long road ahead. "We still need to invest some LE70 billion to upgrade the system," he says, and this investment is tied to economic growth and the achievement of the government's six-year plan. "If over the coming six years we can find LE10 billion to pump into the sewerage system, then we can achieve great results."
Despite the fact that only two thirds of the population presently has access to the sewerage system, El-Maghrabi believes that its condition is better than that of some other countries in the region. "Other states would be content with what we have, but we should do better," he says.
As for the challenge of providing housing, El-Maghrabi says that he is aware of the difficulty of achieving genuine results. "We are a nation that is increasing by 1. 5 million people every year, in addition to all the other issues that have accumulated over the years. It does not matter how long I stay in office: I am sure I will not be able to achieve all the people's demands when it comes to housing."
The minister argues that the housing problem will not change overnight and that the challenges his ministry faces can not be solved by the government alone. El-Maghrabi is proud of the government's efforts in these fields so far. "Although the government's programme has led to great results, with the state helping to build 85,000 housing units annually over the six-year plan, we still have to encourage the private sector to become more fully involved in the programme," he says.
The ministry continues to work on the problem, but El-Maghrabi admits that it has not yet been able to persuade the private sector to become more involved. "We want to encourage small investors and to multiply them by thousands and millions, encouraging them to build and to rent out property. This will bring back people's trust in the real estate market," he says.
Under the old systems, owners could not evict tenants when they wanted. "However, the new system means a landlord does not have to go to court to get rid of a tenant, and as a result people will understand that if they rent their apartments they will be able to get them back at the end, at least without any hassle," he says.
A further challenge facing the ministry is how to increase the population of the desert areas, expand the new cities and create new urban conglomerations. "With a 1.5 million increase in the population each year, we hope that half this number can be settled in the new cities, in order to release pressure on the Nile Valley. I believe this would be quite an achievement for me as a minister if the ministry were able to achieve that. We need new cities and to achieve the maturity of such cities we need 20 years."
El-Maghrabi believes that Egypt's north coast has a great future in this regard. As a former tourism minister, he has overseen the development of the area and enjoys the prospect of a north coast populated all the year round and not just during the summer.
"This area has witnessed a tourism renaissance, with an increase in the number of hotel rooms. I believe tourism could be the engine that pulls this region forward, and I strongly believe that it will be one of the areas able to absorb increases in population. I would not be surprised if by 2035 there were cities on the north coast housing five to 10 million people in which people would reside all year round. There is nothing to stop the urbanisation of such areas."
Sinai is different, he says, and "it can't compete with the north coast because there are many unresolved issues, for example regarding land ownership." Although north coast investment is presently concentrated on private resorts, the minister believes that investment and urbanisation, in addition to establishing non-polluting industries, could turn the region into housing for different segments of society.
"It is three degrees warmer than any other coastal area on the Mediterranean, and 50 per cent of the time it is sunny for three months, and then sunny for parts of the day throughout the year," he says. However, he admits that there are no fixed plans for Al-Alamein city on the north coast yet, even though the city's airport was inaugurated some years ago.
El-Maghrabi never talks about Egypt's housing problem without first mentioning economic growth, since he believes the two are inseparable. "The reason I constantly link the two is that one per cent economic growth on an annual level equates to 100,000 job opportunities and an increase in GNP and GDP," he says.
If it weren't for the current global economic crisis, El-Maghrabi argues that Egypt could have sustained a seven per cent economic growth rate and better results would have been achieved. Despite that, the country has achieved more than four per cent economic growth, though this falls short of the government's ambitions, he says.
El-Maghrabi sees his job as minister as "facilitating" an increase in the supply of housing units, rather than simply building them. "What we have achieved is not enough, because you still hear citizens saying, 'where is the government? I can't find an apartment,'" he says.
Yet, one way the government has decided to try to raise the necessary resources is by auctioning land to the highest bidder, a move that got its share of criticism in the press. Critics blamed the government for raising prices, though El-Maghrabi insists that in a market based on the laws of supply and demand the auctions represented a good opportunity.
"The budget plans to provide LE5 billion for social housing, and the cost of the programme is LE10 billion. How would we be able to make up the difference without the involvement of the private sector?"
In the ministry's defence, El-Maghrabi says that auctions were carried out when Egypt was witnessing good economic growth. Investors were interested and the programme reaped results. Would the government repeat the auctions, given the ensuing criticisms? El-Maghrabi says that circumstances change, and "it is not necessarily a pattern that we will follow. We have only sold a small part of the land available, with the rest going back to housing projects and other government plans."
He also adds that there is a "social price" to be paid, which is to provide people with housing units that cost less than their real price. "In fact, the government provides land for social organisations for 25 per cent less than its actual cost." However, if investors are willing to pay the real price, then "why would the government sell land for a lower price if there was someone willing to pay its real price," he asks.
The government will not provide support for people who want to build compounds, or for people wanting to build villas with huge pools and two or three private garages on the land, El-Maghrabi adds. "We want to support the middle classes, so the land we provide has a social aim. I wonder how people can say that the role of the state is diminishing when 75 per cent of the land is directed to social housing."
When it comes to planning Cairo, there is much to talk about since the government has already published plans for 2020 and 2050. The idea of moving people from the cemetery areas and from islands in the Nile like Geziret Al-Dahab and Al-Warraq has also caused controversy.
"People are able to decide on the future of their country and their city, so when people complain there isn't enough space for them, and when the majority decides on a plan, then the rest has to comply. This is the democracy that people are calling for. As a minister, I don't have any personal interest in the matter."
As for the shantytowns, El-Maghrabi believes that these do not fall under the international definition, since they are areas that "were planned locally by citizens". The Cairo governorate has recently demolished a number of illegal buildings in Ezbet Al-Haggana, a decision the minister believes is sound.
"The governor wanted to fight this phenomenon, and the government's policies will not change because some people have been persuaded to buy apartments in illegal buildings," El-Maghrabi says. Nevertheless, he admits that many issues need to be resolved, and says that the unified building law will be able to resolve them.
"I find it difficult to believe that our laws have allowed those who build illegally to come to an agreement with the government. We are annulling all this, and illegal building will not be ignored anymore."
No other city in the world has as beautiful a river as the Nile running through it, El-Maghrabi says, and this is "something we have to accentuate. I believe that we should have a capital that is contemporary and one that is easy to live in. Instead of streets that have turned into parking lots, we should have underground garages. I also hope for cleaner modes of transportation, whether metro, buses or taxis. In short, I want to see a city that will make any Egyptian proud."
Originally a businessman in the tourism industry, El-Maghrabi believes there is little difference between running a business and a ministry, whether in tourism or in housing. "Any entity is based on human and financial resources and has goals," he says.
Yet, when comparing the two ministries he has headed El-Maghrabi admits that heading the Tourism Ministry was more difficult than heading the Housing Ministry.
"You can't control the inputs of the tourism industry, and it demands a very high-end product because your consumer is often a foreign tourist who wants to be happy and who expects certain standards. For example, he expects streets that are perfect and clean bank notes to use in shops and so on, all things that as a minister I can not control."
On the other hand, El-Maghrabi also draws comparisons with the "consumer" of the Housing Ministry, which is the Egyptian citizen. "That citizen is aware of his country's conditions, and he has compassion for his country. That makes my work at this ministry in some ways easier than at the Tourism Ministry."
Regarding his future ambitions in government, El-Maghrabi has no definite answer.
"I have never contemplated a political career. I accepted this post in order to serve my country. If I am asked to head any other ministry, I will do it," he says.