The roots of the housing crisis in Egypt – Features – Al-Ahram Weekly
“Over the last century, literature and film have portrayed a series of housing crises in Egypt of one sort or another. Images of overcrowded rooms, crumbling housing, and unpainted redbrick and concrete towers carpeting once fertile land match regular news reports capturing a housing problem,” housing and urban-policy expert Yahia Shawkat writes in his recent book Egypt’s Housing Crisis: The Shaping of Urban Space.
This is the bottom line of the argument that this researcher is trying to make: Egypt has a serious housing problem that has been getting worse over the decades and has been causing serious damage to the country’s urban fabric.
Shawkat also acknowledges the basic fact that in Egypt housing is a major social and political issue and that housing policy has been a top agenda issue for almost every government over the past eight decades.
In the 1940s, the then government decided to work on increasing housing capacity in order to cope with a fast-growing population. The original plan was to do this in an orderly manner that would not inflict harm on Egypt’s fertile agrarian land. However, by the 1970s it had become clear that the expansion had not been enough to accommodate the increasing demand and that it had not been orderly or undamaging to rural areas.
Today, Shawkat notes that Egypt is perhaps the world leader in per capita housing production, with “building at almost double China’s rate” and housing units counted in “the millions”. However, his book also notes that the problem of housing and its negative impact on urban space persists.
The reason for this problem and for the failure to see it resolved relates not just to the growing population, however. Nor does it only relate to the many social and political changes that the country has gone through during the past 80 years. Instead, Shawkat says, the problem is related to all these aspects and to economic policies adopted without sufficient consideration being given to their impact on this problem.
Neoliberal policies, corruption, and bad planning are the culprits for the housing problem, he says, perhaps more than the growing population that has been more often than not blamed by successive governments for a range of problems including that of housing.
Going through volumes of official statements and policy papers, Shawkat examines the long story of the housing crisis in Egypt and approaches it in its rural and urban aspects. Today, he says, there are millions of mostly poor but also middle-income families living in precarious legal and physical conditions.
He recalls that in the 1940s a significant part of the rural population lived in privately built houses in izbas (hamlets). Those who were not housed within these hamlets had to build their own houses, mostly of mud-brick and stone.
In the city, people either lived in houses that they had built or bought, or in apartments that were made available, mostly for rent, by the government or private sector. But “if you wanted to live in the city and were not a regularly employed worker or government employee or affluent enough to build or rent in the new districts, your only option was to self-build,” Shawkat says, perhaps settling for a courtyard house (hoash) or shack (isha).
“Despite all these forms of housing, many of them were inadequate. Homes were overcrowded. Workers’ accommodation on rural and industrial estates came with surveillance and coercion — and proper accommodation was simply out…