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Wednesday, 6 March, 2002, 15:55 GMT
Tomb with a view
Manshiet Nasr - the home of 400,000 people
Manshiet Nasr - the home of 400,000 people
By Hugh Levinson

Ahmed looks despairingly at the huge crack running down the back wall of his house. He does not have a water supply, sewage or electricity. There are no schools where he lives and no hospitals. If the crack widens the building could collapse and he will end up homeless.

His situation is not unusual for poor Egyptians. What is unusual is that his home is a tomb.

Living with the dead

Inside there are two faded green gravestones, which his family use as tables and arranging their cooking pots.

My daughter comes home from primary school and has to do her schoolwork between the tombs

Resident of City of the Dead

Ahmed, like many others lives in the old graveyards of Cairo, in the City of the Dead. No one knows exactly how many people live in the cemeteries. Estimates range from 30,000 to one million.

As we talk to Ahmed, other residents gather round, voicing complaints. "My daughter comes home from primary school and has to do her schoolwork between the tombs," one woman protests. "We have no electricity so she has to finish before nightfall."

Others are angry at the discrimination they suffer from other Cairenes. "They think we are nothing but a bunch of undertakers," one man says.

Housing crisis

Actually, they live there because they have nowhere else to go. Although it is not a new phenomenon, the City of the Dead is one symptom of Cairo's acute housing crisis.

Again, accurate figures are hard to come by, but the city's population may well have doubled over the last 20 years to between 14 and 18 million people.

City of the Dead
One of the families living in the City of the Dead

The government's response has been to build new cities in the desert surrounding the capital. However, many Cairenes want to stay in the city where the jobs are.

"In any case, all the new towns built over the last 25 years are equivalent to no more than six months worth of Cairo's natural growth," according to David Sims, an American expert on housing in Egypt.

The social impact

It is not just the poor who suffer. Many young professionals find they are unable to marry, because of strong social rules saying couples cannot wed until the man can provide a home.

Walid, a well-paid cinematographer, has spent four years trying to raise the money to build a flat on top of his family's home. His fiancée got tired of waiting and left him, but he has now found a more patient girl to marry.

He counts himself lucky. One acquaintance's engagement lasted 13 years while he tried to raise the money for a home. "Naturally there is a lot of sexual frustration because of this," Walid says.

But solutions are being explored.

What can be done?

David Sims, in coordination with the Cairo Governate, is running an innovative experiment in Manshiet Nasr, a huge squatted suburb which is home to 400,000 people.

David Sims
David Sims in Manshiet Nasr explains one scheme to aid the housing crisis

If the scheme gets off the ground, it will be one of the first tests of the radical ideas of the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto. He believes that one solution to urban poverty is through secure tenure.

This means transferring land ownership to squatters. De Soto believes that poor squatters will then be able to use the capital value of their land as collateral to borrow money and set themselves up as entrepreneurs.

This idea could be particularly appropriate to Cairo, where an estimated 60 per cent of the population live in informal housing. In Manshiet Nasr, residents will be able to buy the freehold of their homes over the next 15 years.

David Sims says this will put them in a stronger position to demand public services like sewage and schooling and will also make them less prey to demands from local officials for bribes.

Reactions to the scheme

Mahmoud, who built his house in Manshiet Nasr in the 1960s, is delighted by the scheme. He and his family have always feared eviction. Once they own the land, they will be safe.

He adds that it is the squatters who have added value to the area, which used to be just disused quarries.

"The government should be sending us thank you notes," he says, "and it should give us the land. We shouldn't have to pay."

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20 Feb 02 | Country profiles
Country Profile: Egypt
17 Sep 99 | Middle East
Cairo university moving to desert suburb
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