CAIRO: In the dusty street outside her home, just above the newest disaster area in Moqattam, Ola waves a yellowed, tattered housing permit. The permit, over 20 years old, allows Ola and her family to occupy one of the original government flats in the Moqattam Hills – but the arrangement was only supposed to be temporary, Ola insists. “We keep asking the government, when will we be able to move? The government makes promises, but nothing happens.
Manshiyet Nasser and Duweiqa residents are hopeful that the recent tragedy will spur the government to action, not just promises. They know hundreds of housing units are available in Cairo, part of Suzanne Mubarak’s “gift to the poor. They also know similar tragedies have occurred in recent years with little action resulting.
People living in the Moqattam slums were afraid of the rock before it crashed down on them last Saturday. Similar rockslides have claimed scores of lives since the region was first settled over three decades ago. A conspicuous gray scar on the cliffs marks the scene of a 1993 slide that killed thirty.
Inside her home, Ola points to the one-inch-wide crack that runs from her storage room into her kitchen, across the ceiling and down two walls. On the edge of a cliff exactly like the one that fell Saturday morning, Ola’s home is literally sliding from its foundation. Ola’s neighbors revealed similar structural flaws in their walls, ceilings, and foundations. Residents patch gaping cracks with plaster and cement, but gravity pulls them open again. Some of the cracks are big enough to serve as skylights.
With the official death toll over 70, the biggest boulders remain unmoved, and an untold number lies beneath the rubble. But “rubble is not an accurate description of scale: viewed from above, the size of the boulders is staggering – individual boulders are as tall as the cliffs themselves, as wide as a half-dozen homes. Entire houses remain buried, along with whole families – and the stench of the unseen dead is rising.
Construction equipment onsite as of Wednesday – when this reporter made his way past the guards, into the hills – consisted of two backhoes, a grader, and a lot of hands. Saint Simon may have moved Moqattam with prayer, but the current effort will require heavy equipment and ingenuity – and much more of both than was present on Wednesday.
The latest reports from the Middle East News Agency (MENA) say that, as of Friday, Sept. 12, heavy equipment has been temporarily set aside in favor of chemical treatments that will dissolve the rock, breaking it into moveable pieces. Even after the debris has been removed, however, the larger problem of the slums will remain largely unaddressed.
Thousands of living slum residents are financially trapped in crumbling flats, without hope of economic or geographic mobility, perched on the edge of disaster.
While Egypt has seen marked growth in the 21st century, little of that growth has trickled down to places like Manshiyet Nasser and Duweiqa, where the economy is as stagnant as the ditchwater lining the alleys. Garbage collection and the underground recycling industry cannot provide for everyone. Since the government cannot stimulate growth across social strata, it must care for the overwhelming majority left behind; hence the controversial bread and fuel subsidies. And, when the government cannot subsidize the poor, it abandons them.
Haret Abu Khalaf, the alleyway where Ola’s family lives, is teeming with boisterous children. Children are good at making lemonade out of lemons, as the expression goes. Watching the Abu Khalaf kids play, taunting each other atop piles of garbage, the slum’s endemic environmental and economic crisis seems far away. But parents like Ola have little to smile about.
Gravity is a grave concern, but there are other, more insidious threats to the slums’ populations. Obviously, living amidst garbage comes at great epidemiological risk. Children lack access to schools and adequate medical care, and clean water is often hard to find. Noxious fumes from the smelting of toxic materials carpet the district at night, when the air is heavy with humidity, causing chronic respiratory problems. Without consistent work in the mainstream economy, Moqattam families live hand-to-mouth.
The government has promised to relocate people living in the most endangered areas of Manshiyet Nasser and Duweiqa, and to open the area to traffic, by late Friday. None of the residents Daily News Egypt spoke to had been advised of the impending move. Moreover, mass relocation – a daunting project that will not happen overnight, if it happens at all – will reduce only the most superficial threat to people living in the crowded hill slums. Moving people out from under the cliffs will not move them into the mainstream.
A long-term, focused plan for economic revitalization, one that creates a place for residents of places like Manshiyet Nasser and Duweiqa in the mainstream economy, offers the only hope of alleviating the systemic poverty at the foundation of Cairene society. Anything else is just more of the same: empty promises, insincere condolences.
In the meantime, far from consoled by the relief effort, Haret Abu Khalaf families told Daily News Egypt, “We are so scared, we can’t sleep at night.