Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
2 - 8 December 1999
Issue No. 458
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Conquering the beast

While the inhabitants of Cairo wrestle with the city day by day, every new directive and development plan promises to free up the bottleneck and usher in a new, stress-free future. In an exclusive interview, the Governor of Cairo tells Fatemah Farag how he intends to come to terms with the city victorious
Abdel-Rehim Shehata

Front Page
There is a man whose job is to try and resolve the contradictions and dilemmas of the city -- to tame its rough edges, oil its cog wheels, alleviate its growing pains and pave the way for its development. Abdel-Rehim Shehata, Governor of Cairo, may be signing request forms, giving out directives, answering phones and dealing with an inquisitive reporter and exacting photographer all at the same time, yet he never misses a beat. His eyes gleam, as if he were about to make a joke, and a smile seems to be lying in wait for the least excuse to make an appearance. He comments as he continues to address the papers at hand before turning his attention away from the members of parliament who are plying him with questions to the representatives of Al-Ahram Weekly. And why not, when the job at hand is taming this glorious monster of a city. In such circumstances, to lose one's sense of humour could be fatal. Shehata does not seem about to make that mistake.

"Cairo is the city of problems," he comments, not with a sigh, but in a very matter-of-fact sort of way. "Our strategy is an all-out attack on those problems."

When dealing with the multi-faceted challenges facing the city, it is easy to get caught up in detail. Hence, the governor's insistence that to grasp the magnitude of the task at hand, one must never lose sight of the big picture. He describes the strategy adopted by the governorate as comprehensive, comprising eight main programmes: infrastructure, cleanliness, Nile protection, preservation and development of historic Cairo, cultural development, traffic, human development and investment.

The place at which to begin discussing such a diverse agenda seemed obvious enough. After all, Cairene conversation has lately come to be dominated by talk of the continuously plummeting quality of the city's air. "As soon as we noticed that there was a second wave of what has been called the 'cloud of smoke', we immediately set out to investigate the situation. We discovered that the second cloud had three sources. The first was the cement factories. These should have installed filters: however, it seems that recently many of these filters have not been functional. In fact, I found out that the Torah and Qawmia cement plants in particular were not using their filters. We were informed by the people from the Weather Forecasting Bureau that the reason the problem was not only restricted to Helwan this time was a function of the wind coming from the south-west. But that is not all. Contributing greatly to the problem are the eight large foundries of Shubra El-Kheima. Then we found out that there was an additional garbage factor. Again, our field investigation led us to the realisation that there were areas in the City of 15 May [south of Cairo] -- which is under the jurisdiction of the New Urban Developments Authority -- and in Manshiet Naser, where people were sorting garbage in their houses and then throwing the leftovers into the valley of Wadi Far'un. Not only that, they felt the best thing to do was to set fire to it as well."

The reasons uncovered, the Governorate got in touch with the Ministry of the Environment, took action against the garbage collectors of Manshiet Nasr and made a formal complaint to the prosecutor's office against the offending Helwan cement factories. Further, the governor of Al-Qaliubiya was contacted so that coordinated action could be taken against those foundries that use mazot or charcoal.

The governor is the first to agree, however, that the problem of air quality is long-standing, and urgently in need of even more radical action. "This is a very warped situation, and there are several steps which need to be taken. The whole Helwan industrial complex, of course, is problematic. Not just the cement factories, but also the Steel and Iron factory and the Coke factory. Regarding these issues, we have met with the minister of the Public Business Sector and he has promised to take action. As for the foundries within Cairo, in areas such as El-Wayli we have converted them to electricity and natural gas and have prohibited the use of mazot. In short, industries which create pollution have two choices today: they can either reform their technology to become environmentally friendly, or they can be relocated."

It sounds as though the governor is serious. However, the question has been raised, is everyone being treated equally? Comparing the direct action on the ground taken against, for example, the potters of Old Cairo or the garbage collectors of Manshiet Naser, with the approach adopted in dealing with large factories, one might conclude that the weak have been served the harsher sentences, while big business has been able to protect its interests and keep them almost intact. "I agree [with the afore-mentioned allegations] only partially," Shehata replies. "Today we are adopting a new approach and my directives to register an official complaint to the prosecutor against the large factories is an example of this. The law will be implemented with regard to everyone, because the present conditions can no longer be tolerated -- at all."

He crosses and uncrosses his arms emphatically over his paper-laden desk. He feels ill-judged when charged with not taking the human cost of development into consideration, with making only the poor pay for the upgrading of the city. "We have prepared a piece of land on the Qatamia road -- 250 feddans -- for the purpose of relocation. So when we moved out certain areas in Old Cairo, such as the 43 pottery kilns south of the Omar Ibn El-Aas mosque, and the 102 lime quarries, we had places to compensate them with. The lime workshops, for example, can go to Shaqq El-Te'ban. We have also made an agreement with the Social Fund for Development to give those who want to upgrade their facilities soft loans. In the new areas, we give 200 square metres for every 100 metres sequestrated. We are trying to make it easier for people to make the adjustments that must be made."

The preservation of the city's form, at the expense of its soul, is another sensitive subject, and receives an equally firm rebuttal. "We have over 500 historic sites that are earmarked for renovation: Pharaonic, Islamic, Coptic and more modern sites. There has been an encroachment of shanty housing onto these areas. It is not our aim to turn Cairo into a museum. That is why it is crucial to develop the people currently living in these areas within an integrated and comprehensive approach to developing the city and preserving its heritage. So we train people and make them aware of the importance of where they are. For example, we came to Sour Magraa El-Eyoun and found that people had built within the old wall. To deal with this sort of encroachment is a long process -- like delicate plastic surgery -- because we must protect and preserve the community as well. We want preservation without human cost. That is the political aspect, of which we are clearly aware."

Why then is it a common complaint among Cairenes that such moves threaten what they feel is the integrity of the city? Abdel-Rehim Shehata for one cannot begin to fathom why. When confronted with basic facts, such as the difficulty of walking on the street because of the state of the sidewalks, he exclaims, "But we have been very successful in reclaiming the sidewalks of the city of Cairo. We have rehabilitated and created more sidewalks [since I was appointed] than in all the past 50 years. We have closed off some areas exclusively for pedestrians, such as Falaky and Alfi downtown. And what about the project in Sayeda Zeinab?".

Well, what about the garbage? He smiles patiently and explains. "The governorate has three general garbage depots. The garbage is buried to prevent self-combustion. There is Qatamia I and II as well as a depot in Medinet Al-Salam. But in addition to the daily output of garbage from the city, we also have the 15 years of accumulated building debris. When people build, they just throw the refuse onto the road. So we have an LE10 million project to remove this build up of debris. It is a huge project, involving the help of the armed forces. We estimate that within six months most of the backlog will have been tackled. We are giving priority to the area below the Malek Khaled bridge, as well as the districts of El-Sahel and Mataria. The debris will be taken to the general garbage depots."

Shehata is also quick to point out that these efforts are not, in themselves, enough to solve Cairo's garbage problem once and for all. "This is why we are entering into contracts with private sector companies to cover 50 per cent of Cairo," he added.

Abdel-Rehim Shehata
'Today we are adopting a new approach and my directives to register an official complaint to the prosecutor against the large factories is an example of this. The law will be implemented with regard to everyone, because the present conditions can no longer be tolerated -- at all.'
'I must emphasise that the most dangerous obstacle we are up against is people's behaviour. No matter how much we do, without deep-rooted changes in society's attitude, all our efforts will be short-changed, and we will have little to show for them.'

Another project the Governor was eager to draw attention to is the drive to expand green spaces across the city. "In the next two to three years we are aiming at increasing green space by one hundred feddans per year. There is also the one million trees project within the current five-year plan, which is under the patronage of the First Lady. We have been able to reclaim some of the old gardens such as the Ezbekia. There are also noteworthy projects such as the Fustat garden, which is spread across 250 feddans, and the developments in the Gezirah area, such as the Nahr garden. And what about the Rod El-Farag garden?" asks the governor, before adding, "This is one aspect I am not worried about. I can see clearly that we are advancing."

However, when challenged on the issue of why these gardens apparently have to be kept under lock and key, and whether closing them off in this way detracted from their service to the public, Shehata seized on the opportunity to lament the attitude of the people he serves.

"The behaviour of the public does nothing to encourage our efforts. We have been able to open some gardens, such as El-Nahr and Ahmed Ramy. About 50 per cent of the total will be open to the public. The public, however, does not try to preserve what we have made available. You will find that the sidewalks are broken and pulled up. We install garbage cans, yet people still throw garbage on the ground. People must make it their concern to take care of public property."

Contemplating this point, Shehata adds, "The problem is that many of Cairo's inhabitants lack a feeling of belonging. Many do not come originally from the city; they are either recently arrived migrants or in transit. This is a big issue. You have to try and develop people's feeling of belonging." He compares the feeling of citizenship among the Cairenes with that which is to be found in Alexandria. "There, people feel for the city in a way you rarely find in Cairo," he observes. He seems genuinely disappointed in his charges.

But a lack of civic consciousness is not their only flaw. "People do not like to listen to the government," opines the Governor. And why would that be? "I don't know why. Old habits, I guess. They seem to doubt that the government is here to serve their needs. Society must seek to address this problem. Civil society and the press -- everyone is very willing to point out the failures, but what about the things that have been achieved? How about the responsibility the ordinary man bears in the problems that we still face?" asked Shehata. He smiles and leans confidentially towards us, "After all, only God is all powerful."

But are not some of those complaints quite justified? Take, for example, the pedestrian walkways that cross the newly-built axis roads. They tower over the tarmac below. Just looking at them makes one feel out of breath. What about a woman carrying a baby or an elderly man, who need to get to the other side? "We spent millions on a pedestrian tunnel at the new Ahmed Helmy," Shehata replies. "Just go and look. You will find people jay walking," he exclaims, before adding, "Maalesh, people will have to put up with some difficulties. It's not as bad as all that, is it? After all, a good walk is athletic activity!"

He also points out that when judging the new axis roads, people should see them not just as a obstacle course for pedestrians, but above all as the Governorate's response to the chronic disease of traffic congestion. To illustrate the work that has been done to solve this problem, a few figures will come in useful.

"Half of our budget over the past 20 years was spent on traffic -- bridges and tunnels specifically. Today, we have six new axis roads. They are important, because they address the principal shortcoming of Cairo's existing road system -- namely, the fact that all the main roads ran parallel to the Nile. So now we have the ring road, which will have cost LE206 billion, and the Six of October Bridge. The bridges alone have cost LE107 billion. What is the problem then? I will tell you. The problem is that society breaks the law. There are no garages, even where the law specifies one must be installed. So cars are parked along the roads, clogging the arteries of the city. The result: no fluidity on the streets."

The governor sits back and looks at me as if I had closed up a garage myself. "Half of my time goes into solving traffic problems. But can you possibly realise the magnitude of what we are up against? Currently there are one and a half million cars on the street every day. Our streets have a capacity of half a million." How does one solve such a discrepancy? "In my opinion, to solve that kind of problem, you have to stop migration to the city, and stop licensing more cars. Otherwise we simply cannot keep up."

As we speak an official comes in carrying some papers. The governor gives directives to the head of the West Cairo District to open up a parking lot. "Every week, by brute force, we get owners to open up closed parking lots," he explains. The directives are part of a new governorate initiative to create more parking space and thus alleviate the plight of the overcrowded streets.

A major part of the traffic alleviation plan is the underground movement -- that is, the project to build underground parking lots throughout the city. "We have already signed contracts for Tahrir, Omar Makram, Darasa, Roxy, Torgoman and most recently the youth Centre in Gezirah -- all in all, 14 locations across Cairo. In total these lots will have a capacity of 30,000 cars. I expect us to embark on the first phase of this project within the next two years. In the meantime, we will have to endure. I know people are upset about some decisions, like closing down the El-Torgoman parking lot. But it is like the underground metro. For a while, all our traffic was turned topsy turvy, but once everything was in place it made a big difference. That is the way life is."

He goes on to explain that these new policies do not contradict earlier decisions, such as the adoption of multi-level parking lots. "We discovered that our streets were so suffocated and the city was growing so dense that it required that we go below ground. These garages will also have other functions. For example, in Tahrir, one floor will be shops and the rest parking. That way, above ground, we will be able to afford a space that is just garden."

The idea of extensive underground parking seems like an ambitious project, especially in a city plagued by recurrent infrastructure crises which can take long periods of times to resolve. For example, when reporting on the recent water pipe breakage in Tahrir Square which brought the downtown area to a virtual standstill for several days, engineers on site told the Weekly that repair efforts were impeded by a lack of up-to-date maps and information as to what exactly they would find under the ground. I mentioned this to the governor.

"Where do you get that kind of information?" he asked. "We have the most advanced, most highly developed centre for information regarding our underground infrastructure. It is so advanced that the army often calls on our services. This centre has been operational for ten years now. You must realise that the infrastructure of the downtown area, for example, has not been touched in 50 years. When we were working on Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat street, the pipes would turn to powder when we touched them. After all, they were put in the days of the British. That explains some of the difficulties we have faced. Still, you should rest assured that there is no street in Cairo, even in the desert areas, which is not an open book to us," said Shehata.

With this reassurance, I turned to matters above ground. Such as the vases which have popped up all over town. You can't miss them: they gather in twos and threes, and are usually yellow and purple. Are these a worthy way to set about beautifying Cairo -- a city that is home to some of the most important historic sites in the world?. Not to mention some very talented artists? "The vases?" asks the governor, with a dismissive wave of the hand, "They are the work of the Cleaning Authority. I was talking to the Minister of Culture about this the other day. I said, bring me the sculptors who want to make something for the squares of the city, and we will install their works. It is true, perhaps these vases are not 100 per cent acceptable. I think there may be a bit too many of them. But those who don't like them should take the initiative of providing an alternative. Sometimes, you know, it is not enough to stand back and criticise."

Which brings us to another feature of Abdel-Rehim Shehata's approach, since the time he was made governor of Giza. He is known for promoting private initiative. "I welcome the initiatives of the private sector. There are examples of this on the Corniche, and around the Bourse, as well as in the Council of Ministers. But I am not going to plead with anyone. I am very straightforward in my approach and I will not sacrifice the law. As far as I am concerned, the public interest comes before everything else. I do not accept donations. There is no doubt the private sector could offer more, but it must be said that they have already done many positive things. For example, in the realms of education, health, repainting buildings -- a lot of this is not widely publicised. Maybe in the future we can find a framework within which to organise and coordinate all these efforts."

As we sip our tea, we look back over Shehata's career. A graduate of the faculty of agriculture at Cairo University, he began his career as a promising agricultural engineer. He went on to take both a masters and a Ph.D. in that field, and eventually became head of the Institute of Agricultural Research. The turning point came in 1987, when he was appointed Governor of Fayoum. From Fayoum he was transferred to Giza in 1993, at a time when the governorate was considered a hotbed of Islamist militancy. Shehata was described at that time as a man with a hands-on approach which worked. His performance was duly recognised, and in 1996 he was appointed Governor of Cairo. "The political leadership felt I was the right person for this kind of job," is all he will say. Indeed, he handles the whole question of the un-conventional course of his career with obvious modesty.

He prefers to discuss the work at hand, rather than live in the past. "All of these plans, all of this work, none of it is being done piecemeal. Everything is part of a strategy that will be continued by many governors who come after me."

As he reviews the work that lies in wait for his successors, he indulges in a vision of the future. "I think that if we can implement this strategy, and if people can change their behaviour, then we will be one of the most beautiful capitals in the world." Always a practical man, however, he immediately checks himself and adds, "I must emphasise that the most dangerous obstacle we are up against is people's behaviour. No matter how much we do, without deep-rooted changes in society's attitude, all our efforts will be short-changed, and we will have little to show for them." As we prepare to leave, he sums up his philosophy in a single phrase. "Our only life buoy is law and order."

City profile

Cairo is divided into four areas, 25 districts, with 36 main police stations and 350 neighbourhood supervisors

Total area: 3435.3 square km (0.3 percent of total area
of Egypt)
Population: 8 million in addition to 2 million commuters
Population density: 14,000 to 16,000 persons per
1 square km.
Number of buildings: approximately one million


Governorate housing: LE1.3 billion has been spent on 140,000 housing units within current plan. New units: current five year plan includes the expenditure of LE587 million on 28,000 housing units
Water: 7,371 km pipe network with a capacity flow of 3.8 million square metres per day. Between 1981 and 1997 LE2 billion were spent on extending and developing the network
Sewage: 8,719 km pipe network with a flow capacity of 2.6 million square meters. Between 1981 to 1997 LE8 billion were spent on expansion
Electricity: 68,797 km of wire network. Between 1981 and 1997 LE4.1 billion were spent
Telephones: cables 926,104 km long. Number of phone lines 1.6 million. LE3.7 billion were spent between 1981 and 1997
Natural gas: 4,208 km pipe network servicing 550,000 homes and 2,700 various establishments. Cost between 1981 and 1997 was LE1.2 billion

Protecting the Nile

The governorate is responsible for a 42 km stretch of Nile. Its protection efforts are carried out in cooperation with the Ministries of Water Resources, Transportation, Interior, Environment, Agriculture and Tourism.
200 ships, 500 boats, 1600 commodity boats, 300 recreational boats and 400 sail boats ply the waters of the Nile daily within the greater Cairo area. These are supposed to discharge their wastes in the Athar Al-Naby dump for sewage.
There are 92 factories which dot the banks of the Nile, all of these started directing their waste into the general sewage system in 1998.
The governorate acknowledges that to date there are 558 building breaches on the banks of the Nile in the Cairo area. 198 similar violations were reemoved. The current plan is to erase the remaining violations on a weekly basis until 2001.

Cleaning up the city

* Cairo produces 8,000 tons of garbage daily in addition to the left-overs of building and public services which are estimated at 3000 tones . To deal with the challenge the governorate has:
1. Discontinued the use of all open garbage dumps and currently buries all garbage at three general sites;
2. Started using technology that transfers garbage into organic fertilizer. By the end of the current five-year plan, five such facilities will be operational
* Further, a programme aimed at increasing Cairo green space has increased the area of public gardens to 2,250 feddans in 1999

Services profile

* 234 hospitals and medical centres
* 3250 schools
* four universities
* 840 social centres
* 4000 non-governmental organisations
* 56 youth centres
* 166 clubs and sports facilities

Underground garages

Agreed upon: Al-Darasa (600 cars), Al-Tahrir (2200 cars), Al-Mawardy (600 cars), Roxy (500 cars), Al-Torgoman (1000), Ahmed Helmy (1500 cars), Markaz Shabab Al-Gezira.
Under study: Al-Abasiyya, Abbas El-Aqad, Sports clubs (four clubs)

All of the information and figures used in the tables and charts were provided by the Cairo Governorate

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