Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1310, (1 - 7 September 2016)
Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Issue 1310, (1 - 7 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Urban violence in Ramlet Bulaq

The residents of the informal Cairo district of Ramlet Bulaq have the right to be involved in decisions made about their future, investigates Galal Nassar, with photographs by Khaled El-Fiqi

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Historian Abdel-Rahman Zaki in his encyclopaedic The City of Cairo over One Thousand Years wrote of the origins of the Ramlet Bulaq district that “it was once known as Minyat Bulaq and was located in the area still known today as Ramlet Bulaq between the Nile and Rod Al-Farag Bridge in the Bulaq district of Cairo.”

The Ramla area is located in the far north of the Bulaq neighbourhood. More than four feddans in area, it is a residential district inhabited by some 600 families and dates back to the end of the 18th century. The name Bulaq comes from the Pharaonic word bilaq meaning port. The area’s modern history began when Kafrawi Pasha and Ezzawi Pasha built a set of workshops along with a large three-storey house at the entrance to today’s residential area.

Umm Faris, an elderly resident of the area, says of this history that “water would reach Ramla from the Nile. When Kafrawi and Ezzawi brought in people to work in the new workshops, they started setting up large tents as temporary homes in the area around the big house. Then they started converting these into mudbrick houses, later using brick and concrete as the area developed.”

Due to its location and the haphazard development in the area, Ramlet Bulaq has sometimes seen various urban conflicts, at times hidden but often more overt, either due to plans for urban or human development or to the desire of businessmen, investors and perhaps even officials for the land on which the residents' homes sit. In recent years, and especially after the 25 January Revolution, the area saw conflicts break out between local residents and others because of neglect by state and governorate officials. Such problems have led to mistrust among local residents.

According to one, “the residents of Ramlet Bulaq believe that the incidents of violence that have taken place in the area and that have led to the deaths of some people, the arrest of others and arbitrary action against almost everyone, have been aimed at clearing them out of the area so that the investors and businessmen who own the nearby tower blocks can take the land and move ahead with investment projects.”

“Since these businessmen arrived in 1996 and the first towers opened in 2001, the managers of the new properties have worked tirelessly to buy houses and land in Ramlet Bulaq and have even forced those who have agreed to sell to demolish their homes before leaving. Whole areas have been turned into waste areas filled with trash or rubble as a result,” he said.

The district is in fact an exemplar of urban social violence, to use the academic term, with all the contradictions seen in the informal areas adjacent to the upper-class or middle-class areas that form a ring around the capital. To enter Ramlet Bulaq today, visitors commonly leave their cars outside, as the streets inside are too narrow even to qualify as alleys. Above the sometimes squalid housing in the area rises the Nile City Tower, a gleaming 34-storey building full of hotels, restaurants and offices. The area also attracts many photographers seeking to illustrate the class disparities that exist in Egypt.

The Nile Corniche is on the edge of the area, at times obscured by the new high rises. Just a few minutes away on foot or by car are some of the most iconic markers of the capital – Tahrir Square, the cabinet building, the parliament and various ministries like the ministries of the interior, health and housing.

In 2011, the Fund for the Development of Informal Areas, which answers to the prime minister, released a survey of “unsafe” informal areas in Cairo, estimated at 57. Of these, 14 were designated as first-level unsafe, 32 as second-level, 10 as third-level and one as fourth-level. The government announced that LE191 million had been set aside to develop these areas. According to the Fund, the areas slated for development were located in Misr Al-Qadima, Al-Salam, Al-Nahda, Al-Marg, Matariya, Nasr City, Manshiet Nasser, Khalifa, Sayeda Zeinab and Helwan.

Under decree 8993/2011 of the Cairo Governorate published in the Official Gazette in June 2012, the government attempted to seize land in Ramlet Bulaq for re-development, but local residents took legal action. In August, the Administrative Court issued a ruling “suspending the implementation of the Governorate decree” in response to a lawsuit filed by the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), both NGOs, and lawyers acting on behalf of residents.

Lawyer Ahmed Hossam acting on behalf of the EIPR said that “the decree seizing the houses of the area’s residents violates the Constitutional Declaration of March 2011, which upholds and protects private property, as well as the subsequently invalidated 2012 Constitution.”

 “The decree also violates Law 10/1990 on eminent domain, which regulates the forcible purchase of private property by government bodies in the public interest. This law requires a further decree from the president or his deputy, which did not happen in this case. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, administering the country at the time, did not authorise the Cairo governor to issue the decree,” Hossam said.

The lawsuit stated that “the law defines cases in which private property may be seized, for example in order to build a bridge, a public square, or roads or water and sanitation facilities. The objective of the decree to seize the houses of this area’s residents was not to establish any of these, however, but instead aimed to demolish the houses and sell the land to businessmen.”

 “On the face of it, the goal of the decree is to develop the area. However, the true goal is to demolish local homes, sell the land to big investors, and build towers and tourism and entertainment areas,” it said.

On a recent visit to the area, Al-Ahram Weekly photographer Khaled El-Fiqi captured something of the daily hardship of the residents, also recording some of their comments.

Researcher Omneya Khalil, who works with 10 Tooba, a group which has focussed on the Ramlet Bulaq area since September 2012, says in a paper published on the group’s Website that “the ideal solution for the hardship of Ramlet Bulaq residents is participatory development. This is what we have tried to do. For months we conducted research in the area and listened to local residents in order to come up with a common vision of how to develop the area, not to level it or move out its inhabitants.”

Khalil, who received her MA from the American University in Cairo for a thesis on Ramlet Bulaq entitled “People of the City: Work, Leisure and Power Relations,” added that it was important “for any planned solution to incorporate demands to develop the homes and lives of residents by their staying in place and by renovating their houses, extending services and putting legal matters on a proper footing.”

Asked whether 10 Tooba was in contact with the Fund for the Development of Informal Areas in its vision for a solution to the area’s problems, Khalil said the group had been in contact with the Ministry of Urban Development and Informal Areas in an attempt to come up with a vision resembling the development of the Maspero Triangle, as had been drawn up by the ministry before this had been set aside in the last cabinet reshuffle. However, the talks had come to nothing because the situation in Ramlet Bulaq was so complex, Khalil said.

This complexity was owing to issues such as land ownership, the ministry’s desire to impose similar conditions to those employed in the Maspero Triangle on Ramlet Bulaq, and agreements among local residents themselves, Khalil said. She stressed the need to prioritise social justice in urban development as “the only way to include people and their problems in development plans and not to treat them like second-class citizens.”

Khalil warned of the dangers of development that could remove residents from their present homes in exchange for small apartments in tower blocks, as had been floated in proposals by the government or by people advocating that other state institutions intervene to develop the area.

“The lifestyles appropriate to middle-class housing may not work for everyone,” Khalil said. “Turning to such a solution could mean that the area’s residents will suffer, and it could create a kind of social violence inside families due to the small spaces in which they would now have to live.” 10 Tooba, the group formed by Khalil and her colleagues, works to document the reality of deprived urban communities in Egypt. It aims to improve urban and social conditions and ensure appropriate housing for residents, according to its Website.

In an interview last week, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said that “the state is building 175,000 apartments to house residents of dangerous informal areas. One million Egyptians will benefit from this programme at a cost of LE17 billion. Moving these families from these areas to suitable housing equipped with services, playgrounds, schools and parks will uphold the dignity of Egypt and its children,” he said.

In a statement made three months ago to mark the inauguration of Asmarat City in Mokattam designated for housing residents of informal areas, Al-Sisi said he had asked the government and the engineering corps of the Armed Forces to build new housing units for the residents of informal and dangerous areas, moving them to the new units over the next two years in order to find a speedy solution to their problems.

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