Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1274, (10 - 16 December 2015)
Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Issue 1274, (10 - 16 December 2015)

Ahram Weekly

More housing or services?

Skyrocketing land values are complicating efforts by one community to provide better services for its residents, writes Sarah Eissa

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Eleven acres of land, valued at millions of pounds, located between Ard Al-Lewa and Al-Sudan Street in a middle-class area in Giza governorate, was originally set to become a housing project.

Residents, however, have demanded that the land be used as a service area for the densely populated neighbourhood of Ard Al-Lewa. With a final decision still not made, street vendors have taken over part of the land.

Hamdi Reda, a visual artist and founder and director of Artellewa Art Space in Ard Al-Lewa, and Abbas Al-Rawi, the owner of an import-export company, spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly about their concerns.

Reda and Al-Rawi are founding members of the Public Coalition of Ard Al-Lewa, which was formed after the 2011 Revolution by a group of area residents. Although they have various backgrounds and ideologies, they are united in the aim of improving their neighbourhood.

They started by finding solutions to some immediate problems then went on to bigger ones, such as the neighbourhood’s lack of services, including schools, public hospitals and a park.

Ard Al-Lewa Youth Union is another group that wants to improve the neighbourhood. Mohamed Mustafa is its general coordinator and a co-founder of the coalition.

The idea to establish a services area was introduced by the coalition’s youth. However, Mustafa left the coalition after the two groups fell into disagreement and hurled accusations at each other. Nevertheless, Mustafa is still working in support of the service area cause.

Mustafa says the Ministry of Endowment planned to build a housing project on the 11 acres but residents rejected the plan. “We have no services in our neighbourhood at all,” he said, adding that after the revolution, when they started to press for services, the answer was always “Provide us land first.”

“The land is of course the most expensive part and no one will ever donate land that costs millions. This is the state’s role,” Mustafa said.

Reda adds that they wanted the government to help establish the services they lack and started to search for a suitable piece of land. The group found the 11-acre land, known as Ard-Alwqaf (Al-Awqaf Egyptian Authority land). Al-Rawi adds the service area would serve Ard Al-Lewa as well as surrounding areas. “We are asking for the basic services that residents need to maintain a decent standard of living.”

The group studied the project closely with the help of Hanaa Gad, an engineer and a member of the coalition, and the Cairo Lab for Urban Studies, Training and Environmental Research (CLUSTER).

By the end of 2011, contractors started work on the housing project. “We were against this project because the neighbourhood does not lack houses — it lacks services,” Reda said. The group contacted Al-Awqaf Egyptian Authority, which said the housing project had been planned long before and that the documents were already signed.

“We used the revolutionary spirit at that time and protested in support of using the land to cover a service shortage,” Reda recalls.

“Our voices were heard with the help of Amr Al-Shobaki [a political analyst at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies] who was a member of parliament at that time. We were able to meet the cabinet minister back then, Kamal Al-Ganzouri, more than once.” Mustafa praised Al-Shobaki for the help he provided.

Reda and Al-Rawi were among others representing the coalition at these meetings. According to them, Al-Ganzouri welcomed the idea and also recognised the need for green space.

“Ard Al-Lewa was once a green area but due to poor strategy in the country it turned into one of the shantytowns. So at least we will have memories that there was once a green space here,” Reda said.

Al-Ganzouri formed a committee, including the minister of housing, the Giza governor, new urban community and Al-Awqaf authorities. After several letters were sent back and forth, starting in 2012, the final decision was made in 2014 to substitute Al-Awqaf with another piece of land in 6th October City.

Reda believes that despite the agreement of ministers and governors, completing the documents was delayed due to cabinet reshuffles, bureaucracy and the corruption of some clerks who may have benefitted from the housing project. “Especially when the land is between Al-Mohandessin district and Ard Al-Lewa and its price is soaring,” Reda added. According to one of the letters, one metre of the 11-acre land was valued at LE4,000 in 2011.

Al-Rawi explains that during the presidency of the Islamist Mohamed Morsi, they could not take any steps forward and did not receive any replies from the government to finish the project. He added that another housing project was being set up by the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Engineering Syndicate, which wanted to show that the service area was its idea.

Mustafa agrees with Al-Rawi, saying things were moving smoothly until Hisham Kandil became prime minister under Morsi. “During the Muslim Brotherhood era everything was frozen.” Mustafa assumes this was because the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party wanted to take credit for the service area project as it had a strong presence in the neighbourhood. “They pretended they worked for the project and bought the land but we opposed this. Thus, everything was frozen.”

After 30 June, when Ibrahim Mehleb became prime minister, they met Mehleb, again with the help of Al-Shobaki, and more steps were taken, Mustafa explains. Ali Abd Al-Rahman, the former Giza governor, and Mehleb supported the project. Reda and Al-Rawi praised Abd Al-Rahman, saying that he met them whenever they wanted, unlike Khaled Zakria Al-Adli, the current governor, whom they have failed to meet; nor as he replied to their emails.

According to the pair, Reda met Al-Adli only once, at the opening of a youth centre in Ard Al-Lewa. To their surprise, Al-Adli said he did not know about the land. They wondered how the governor could not be aware of such a big and valuable piece of land.

Mustafa says he is in contact with Alaa Al-Harras, the Giza deputy governor for neighbourhoods, and other officials in the governorate. “I presented a complete file to Al-Harras so the governorate would take a stand because land ownership is supposed to be transferred to the governorate,” he said.

Mustafa says that until now the land is owned by Al-Awqaf, and that there are letters of correspondence to transfer the ownership to Giza governorate. What remains are routine procedures as the intension to transfer the land ownership has been presented.

“Al-Harras is new in his position; he did not attend the previous negotiations. Since he came, the situation has been at a standstill.

This is why I presented the file to him,” said Mustafa.

Another issue raising concern is street vendors selling their wares at Al-Mazlakan, the entry point to Ard Al-Lewaa from Al-Sudan Street, which is located next to the Al-Awqaf land. After the closure of Al-Mazlakan, street vendors moved to Al-Awqaf, despite the coalition’s objections.

Al-Rawi says street vendors took over because Al-Harras issued a decree allowing them to work there. He adds that they had provided solutions to street vendors to Al-Harras and other officials but these were not taken up. Al-Harras’ office did not reply to the Weekly’s request for a meeting.

Mustafa, however, agrees that street vendors can use part of the land. “They used to cause a problem when they were at Al-Mazlakan. Residents used to suffer because they could not move freely. We had an agreement with the governorate to give them a piece of the land, a maximum half-acre. “Until now, they have taken around 1,500 metres,” he said.

“We still defend the idea of the service area, so why don’t we consider solving the street vendors’ problem as part of the services provided to Ard Al-Lewa?” Mustafa asked. “The space will still be enough for a service area.” Mustafa says the governorate will ensure that street vendors stick to this half-acre and will not spread further because they gave them the area and placed barriers around it.

Al-Rawi and Reda, however, are against giving street vendors even half an acre. They said that another piece of land was already taken for building a bridge that connects Al-Sudan Street to Ard Al-Lewa. “Building the bridge was fine for us because it was in the public’s interest,” Al-Rawi said.

He said he believes that some want to take advantage of the land because prices are going sky high and that if they received a four-metre-square kiosk, “it would be like getting LE120,000 as the metre will cost LE30,000.”

In addition, the company setting up housing projects, which is a subsidiary of the military, is leaving small apartments empty which families will take over and will of course not leave. If that happens, Al-Awqaf will solve the problem by returning to the housing project, Al-Rawi said.

However, one street vendor told the Weekly he would never live in the neighbourhood. “We can’t wait until we go home after we finish work. Who would like to live here anyway?” he asked.

Mohamed, another street vendor, says they were first working near Al-Mazlakan and when it closed, some religious clerics from the district approached them to move to Al-Awqaf. “I don’t know anything except that this land is owned by Al-Awqaf. Therefore, we can’t take it over,” he said.

“People’s welfare is more important than individuals. If they want to establish a service area then so be it, but will they take us into consideration? Our position is not yet settled. Whenever they tell us to leave, we will leave. We cannot say no. I don’t care where I work but, of course, don’t put me in the desert. I just want to sell my products,” Mohamed said.

Raed Al-Isnawi, another street vendor, said that after the Mazlakan closure, officials, including Mahmoud Hussein, the vice-president of Al-Agouza neighbourhood, asked street vendors to move to Al-Awqaf. “Street vendors together bought steel for around LE70,000 to build shops, like they told us,” he said.

Al-Isnawi added that some sellers had to borrow the money. He worries that after paying “this large amount of money” they will be told that what they are doing is wrong and their shops will be taken down.

Sellers do not have proof if this area is rightfully theirs, as Al-Isnawi and Maher Abu Kamel, another street vendor, explain. “What shall we do? They just said that this way the market place would look better and more civilised,” said Abu Kamel. He added that street vendors do not mind moving but want to first guarantee that it will be a suitable place.

Reda, Al-Rawi and Mustafa want the service area to become a reality and are working towards that goal. They say they can, with the help of other NGOs, fund and construct the service area to “make it real.”

Knowing the spirit of the 2011 Revolution would not last long, Reda says they established an official civil foundation aimed at improving the neighbourhood, called Ard Al-Horrya Foundation (The Land of Freedom), which started last year.

Similarly, Mustafa says the union is going through the official process of establishing the foundation, to be called Your Hand With Us for Community Development. “The name shows the aim. We try to improve our community by using the resources we have, which is a group of youth volunteers who want to serve the neighbourhood, so they find a medium for sending messages between them and the residents.” He added that they are currently coordinating with other organisations until they become officially registered.

Al-Rawi is still trying to get the full land for the service area through documents he has in his procession and with the help of some lawyers who live in Ard Al-Lewa. They are doing so because it will in the end benefit their children. “The material value of the land is what is causing many problems,” he said.

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