Late Monday evening the Suzanne Mubarak Housing Project in Duweiqa was thrumming with people and machines. Moving trucks, piled high with furniture, snaked through the crowds, entire families jammed into the cabs.
Front-end loaders carted rubble from demolition sites above the recent disaster area.
Charity organizations arrived periodically, tossing Ramadan bags and juice boxes into a frantic sea of outstretched hands. Government officials stood on the balcony of a newly opened tenement, shouting through loudspeakers to the mob below, announcing the names of families whose housing applications had been approved. Egypt’s First Lady, Suzanne Mubarak, commissioned the Duweiqa housing project in response to warnings from geologists and environmentalists about the grave risk to families living in the shantytowns strung along the Moqattam Cliffs. Construction began in 1999, and 10,000 apartments have been completed to date – but only a fraction of those apartments were opened to the public before the catastrophic collapse two weeks ago, which claimed the lives of over 100 people and displaced thousands more. Last week, the First Lady said, “I promise the afflicted families that we will solve their problems within days in cooperation with other [government] agencies. . I will personally take responsibility for finding a home for each family that deserves to have one. . I hope that some [residents] don t capitalize on the situation by dishonestly claiming that they are victims of the catastrophe.
As of Monday night, Mrs Mubarak appeared to be making good on her promise. While many of the stark white, block-shaped buildings remained completely dark, others were fully inhabited, and there were more than a few among the project’s new residents who were eager to thank the First Lady.
A wide smile creased the cheeks of Heba Zaki, grandmother of five, after she received a charity bag filled with rice, macaroni, lentils, and cooking oil.
Heba Zaki’s son Khaled, 33, stood nearby, eager to join his mother in praising Mrs Mubarak. “All of this, everything you see here, is thanks to her, said Heba Zaki. The Zaki family moved into their new flat one week ago, after the mass evacuation of their neighborhood, Al-Talataat. Heba Zaki lived in al-Talataat for 30 years. As she recounted her story, a steady flow of furniture-laden trucks filed by on the road – Mrs Mubarak has promised to release another 2,000 units in the coming weeks, and the hopeful were arriving in droves.
But there are not enough houses for everyone, and the double line of riot police surrounding the entrance to the most recently opened building suggests that the distribution process is a less than joyous affair. One woman was happy to have received a flat, but angry that her sister – who lived in the adjoining house – had been repeatedly refused new housing, even though her roof caved in.
Charges of corruption are hot on the lips of Duweiqa’s evacuees.
Duweiqa’s displaced, even those who have received apartments, share a common suspicion: over the past decade, government officials have used a system of bribes to restrict access to the Suzanne Mubarak Project, and to reserve the new, solidly-constructed dwellings for their own inner circle.
Faiza, a middle-aged woman who refused to give her last name for fear of governmental reproach, was relieved when her family received a new flat in the Suzanne Mubarak compound. Faiza’s family – which includes a daughter, Heba, 27, four grandchildren under the age of seven, and Heba’s husband, Ahmed – lived in the rubble of their home for three days before the government forced them out of the safety cordon; then, they took to the streets.
Faiza’s family, like so many families in Duweiqa, lacks steady income. Lung disease claimed Faiza’s husband five years ago, and now lung disease has rendered Ahmed, 30, formerly a bus conductor, incapable of working.
Heba’s eldest child, seven-year-old Mohamed, used to help his mother sell tissues in Khan El-Khalili, but now he too has fallen sick. Heba takes Mohamed for free oxygen treatments at a special lung hospital in Aboul Reesh, but when free treatments are not available, she must shoulder the cost of inhalers on her own. A single inhaler costs LE 106, well out of reach for a woman like Heba, who earns between LE 60-80 per month.
Two of Heba’s children suffer from eye infections, which Heba and Faiza attributed to contact with water and air contaminated by rotting corpses.
Heba’s youngest child, still nursing, had large lesions on his forehead and appeared weak and malnourished. “Most of our food comes from Ramadan charities, not from the government, Faiza said. “We are worried that when Ramadan is over, we will have nothing.
After Ramadan, Faiza’s family will have two very important things: first, they will have a new flat, away from the dangerous cliffs; second, they will have a steady supply of running water. Education, employment, and proper medical care, however, will probably remain elusive. And for most of the residents of the greater Manshiyet Nasr region, Suzanne Mubarak’s flats will also remain inaccessible – the area is home to over one million people, while the housing project has room for only 80,000.
Work crews were busy demolishing homes on the edge of the Moqattam Cliffs as late as 1am, Tuesday, Sept. 23. Dozens of children sifted through the wreckage, collecting steel rebar and wires for sale in the underground recycling market. Hundreds of crumbling homes have already been leveled, but thousands remain, only a few meters from the edge.
Those still living in the shantytowns are eager to leave, but they have nowhere to go. And as Ahmed Samir, a laborer, told Daily News Egypt, shantytown construction continues apace. “The government will try to stop construction, but they can’t, he said.
The irony is hard to miss-in slums like Duweiqa, illegal construction is one of the only viable industries.