Egypt's Informal Settlements: Soldiers, Gangs, Poverty, and Construction

In 2008, the number of people living in informal settlements or slums in Egypt grew to 15 million; the equivalent of 40% of the urban population in Egypt. In fact, most informal settlements are an extension of some of the most densely populated areas.
2022-05-11

Ali Al Raggal

Egyptian researcher in socio-politics, specialized in Security Studies.


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This publication has benefited from the support of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. This text may be reproduced in part or in full, provided the source is acknowledged.

Some researchers refuse to use the term “slums” due to its negative and, sometimes, pejorative connotations, as these areas have long been demonized. The term itself has become a justification for the state’s abuse and mockery of the inhabitants of these new communities. It is also difficult to describe more than 39% of the urban cluster in Egypt (according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics) as “slum areas”. However, this article uses the term to deconstruct it, understand why and how it was put in place over the decades, and inspect how some densely populated areas have morphed into slums. The same term may even be used to describe what might be called "luxurious informal settlements," as Egyptian urbanization is for the most part informal and unplanned.

After the rockslide that crushed homes and lives in the Al-Dweikah neighborhood in 2008, a presidential decree was issued to establish the Informal Settlements Development Fund [ISDF] affiliated with the Council of Ministers. In the same year, the parliament enacted the Unified Building Law, which divided informal settlements into three categories: unsafe / hazardous areas (whereby hazardous areas were classified into four degrees of danger); unplanned areas; and unhealthy areas. In 2008, the number of people living in informal settlements or slums grew to 15 million . This means that they constitute 40% of the urban population in Egypt. Alexandria Governorate ranks first in terms of the spread of slums, with an area of 20.1 thousand acres, or 12.5% of the total area of Alexandria.

According to a report by the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms :

• Egypt has 24 unsafe areas that are hazardous in the first degree, i.e., residents’ lives are under direct threat, with approximately 23,000 housing units located on more than 575 acres;

• The number of unsafe areas that are hazardous in the second degree is 247, with more than 114,000 housing units located on more than 2,163 acres;

• The number of unsafe areas that are hazardous in the third degree is 60, with more than 48,000 housing units located on more than 1,127 acres;

• The number of unsafe areas that are dangerous in the fourth degree is 16, with more than 25,000 housing units located on more than 624 acres;

• The total area of informal settlements is 38.60% of the urban cluster;

• The total number of cities containing informal settlements is 226 out of 234, meaning that there are only eight cities devoid of informal settlements;

• The total area of unplanned informal settlements is 156,000 acres, while that of the unsafe informal settlements is 4,500 acres.

I- How can we understand Informal Settlements in Egypt?

The history of informal settlements in Egypt dates back to the early twentieth century, although what we know and see today in the urban cluster is a product of the late 1960s, with its clear crystallization rooted in the 1980s and 1990s. Sociologist Asif Bayat said: “Informal settlements in their current form are not the result of migration from the countryside to the city in the first place, but rather of a migration from the city to the city .” Per the statistics he relied on, migration rates from the countryside to the city have decreased, which explains the emergence and massive increase of informal settlements within the various rural governorates in the Delta and Upper Egypt. Thus, informal settlements are not alien to the city but rather a natural expansion of the general population of poor and middle-income citizens.

Egypt is a big but poor country. Only eight cities have “evaded” slum areas and informal settlements: two in the Suez Governorate, two in the Al-Sharqiyah Governorate, three in the Kafr al-Shaikh Governorate, and one in the Giza Governorate.

The expansion of popular areas

Al-Matariyah, Ayn Shams, Imbabah, Bashtin, and Dar al-Salam in Cairo; Abu Suleiman, Al-Awayid, and Al-Hadrah al-Jadidah in Alexandria are areas consisting of the so-called “Izab” (plural of Izbah, which is similar to a small village, although some of them can be huge in size and population) and slums within the larger informal settlements. These areas are an output of the natural expansion of the urban sprawl, whether on the desert or agricultural lands or a mixture of agricultural lands with straw and wicker (similar to the thorns and harmful plants that spread in the agricultural land). The major shifts in the considerable increase of these areas occurred in the 1980s due to the migration within the city itself.

But the rural, Upper Egyptian, and nomadic Arab origins are extremely important, not because the informal settlements increased dramatically due to this migration, but because these backgrounds will shape the nature of social relations in these new-found settlements. A large part of the slums consisted of nomadic Arab groups who were sentenced to forcible displacement from their hometowns or to “khulu” or “tashmis” (both terms are synonyms that refer to socio-spatial exclusion, whereby the tribe abandons one of its members or families and deprives them of its protection, security, and lineage. This means that others can harass and abuse them without the tribe being obligated to defend them, mediate for them, or negotiate on their behalf.) This was an opportunity for some gypsies, aka Romani people (some nomadic tribes who settle on the outskirts of cities and whose origins come from different regions such as India, Iran, Asia, and some regions of Central Europe); and groups of the so-called Al-Hajjanah, whose main trade is theft and burglary; and many of the thugs who were vulnerable to security restrictions and police harassment. These groups were also socially ostracized within their areas and wanted to open new outlets for their life and trade, away from the old world.

The debate over whether the informal settlements are ruralizing cities or urbanizing the countryside is meaningless. Informal settlements are not a rural phenomenon; they are an urban phenomenon that has grown on the agricultural outskirts of cities. Most of these outskirts were not “rural” in the sense that they were large gatherings of farmers.

Also, huge numbers of young people trying to find accommodation and start a family have joined these ethno-social diversities. Therefore, most informal settlements are extensions of some densely populated areas. For example, in Alexandria, the Abu Suleiman area was formed in this way, as were most of the “Izab” and areas built along the banks of the Al-Mahmudiyah Canal. All areas north of the canal are old densely-populated towns. Relying on tribalism and in-group loyalty is familiar, even in densely populated towns such as the clustering of families from Upper Egypt or those from the Delta on certain streets. Each group has attempted to fortify itself through these tribal bonds to consolidate power and prestige, protect legal and illegal trade, and secure women and lands they unlawfully occupied. With the increase in population density in these new areas, some social ties began to form and revolve around the “neighborhood,” that is, the formation of tribal bonds based on the street or neighborhood in which a certain group of residents live. Rather, this idea in itself has become a source of conflict and violence, as it represents, in itself, a bond to embody influence and power within the area in general.

Tribalism

To this day, the conflict based on tribal backgrounds remains the fiercest. It is not only related to informal settlements, as it also exists in the old densely populated towns and the frontiers that bring together nomadic Arabs with the Upper Egyptians in large numbers, such as Al-Hanufil and Kilo 21 in Alexandria, and even in the desert areas that were cultivated such as Al-Nubariyah. There, the tribal battles remain the most dangerous. In 2012, a fierce affray erupted between the communities of the Upper Egyptians and nomadic Arabs in the Bakus area in Alexandria, and it lasted for a whole week. The repeated intervention of the Navy's Special Forces failed to contain it. The same was true of some affrays between Upper Egyptians and nomadic Arabs in Kilo 21.

In addition to these diverse groups, various Islamic groups have expanded, some peaceful and some extremist who call for taking up arms. Al-Matariyah, Ayn Shams, and Imbabah in Cairo witnessed an intense presence of the Islamic Group, the Salafi Jihadism, and the Qutbiyyun (Qutbiyyun is an Islamist group that adopts an Islamist ideology which was developed by Sayyid Qutb, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood who was executed by the Egyptian government in 1966. Despite its small number, it is highly ferocious and uses violence as a means of political and social change. It differs from the so-called Qutbiyyun within the Muslim Brotherhood.) On the other hand, the Salafist movement of Madkhalism, based on the writings of Rabee al-Madkhali, has a strong presence in Al-Munib. Abu Suleiman and some areas of Sidi Bishr and Al-Mandarah in Alexandria witnessed a strong presence of the Salafist Call (Al-Nour Party now) due to its remarkable widespread and its Alexandrian origins, and of the Muslim Brotherhood as well.

Ruralization or Urbanization?

The debate over whether the informal settlements are ruralizing cities or urbanizing the countryside is meaningless. Informal settlements are not a rural phenomenon; they are an urban phenomenon that has grown on the agricultural outskirts of cities. Most of these outskirts were not rural in the sense that they were large gatherings of farmers. They were agricultural lands, wicker fields, or lands belonging to the Egyptian Endowments Authority (EEA) or the Agrarian Reform Authority (ARA), however, their agricultural role was over. Therefore, informal settlements cannot be seen as “an assault on the city by the countryside”. For example, in Alexandria, we cannot say that Al-Maamurah al-Balad, whose areas mostly belong to the ARA or EEA, is ruralizing the city. It was an agricultural extension in the city of Alexandria, which have gradually turned into residential areas to which Alexandrians migrated from various neighborhoods, such as Al-Suyuf and part of the old Al-Mandarah. Most of its residents today are people who came from densely populated towns or middle-class individuals who are trying to start a family. It contains a mixture of unplanned, illegal, semi-legal, and authorized construction.

It was not the poor who took advantage of the moment of the revolution to build high-rise towers that violated all building regulations and harmed the infrastructure. It was the financiers who did.

The survival of clannish groups and the preservation of their identities in these settlements have nothing to do with ruralization or urbanization. Rather, it is related to the realities of the social conflict and the lack of development of the production forces and their relations. Otherwise, we could have considered most of Alexandria as “Upper Egyptian” due to the massive migration of Upper Egyptians to it in the 1940s.

Wealthy Informal Settlements

Informal settlements are not necessarily confined to the poor population, although the latter constitute the majority of residents in Egypt. The affluent class has also carried out informal and semi-legal urban expansion. Perhaps the most prominent example of this is the many building violations, fraudulent activity, and involvement in corruption with the local and governorate councils in large areas in Alexandria, such as Sidi Bishr, Miyami, Al-Asafirah, Nasr Street, and Hilton in Sammuhah. There is a customary belief among contractors that “profit is not possible without violating building regulations”. However, these areas in violation of building regulations enjoy all services. When we examine the relationships that underpin such unregulated urbanization, we will find a mixture of alliances of power and bullying.

For example, if a contractor violates a five-story building permit and builds a ten-story building (or more in some cases), one of the big thugs in the area would buy an entire floor of the building at the normal market price, before he haggles with the contractor on another floor which he buys almost at a quarter of the market value in exchange for providing protection for the building through his corrupt ties with the police station and the neighborhood council (a mini-municipal council). In some cases, the contractor sells one of the upper floor apartments at a very low price to one of the high-ranking officials. It was not the poor who took advantage of the moment of the revolution to build high-rise towers that violated all building regulations and rules and harmed the infrastructure. It was the financiers who did.

Land and space are sources of wealth

According to many researchers in various social sciences, informal settlements are a clear product of the failure of housing policies and the absence of an integrated vision for urbanization in Egypt over the successive regimes of the July State. The Gamal Abdel Nasser regime is responsible for disrupting the real estate market due to fixing the rental value of housing units. Also, ex-Presidents Sadat and Mubarak are blamed for the failure to establish a balanced relationship between the role of the private sector and the state in the public housing construction process. It is worth noting that openness policies, then neoliberal policies, and the state's abandonment of its social roles are the reason for the skyrocketing increase of informal settlements in Egypt.

The key issue is that land and space are the main sources of wealth in Egypt. The social conflict hence revolves around land, making real estate the most lucrative investment. Due to the lack of the development of productive forces in Egypt, the conflict over the public and private spaces has become the closest to the public imagination. For this reason, most disputes that arise have to do with squatter lands, street corners, and common spaces, as is the case in informal settlements and parking lots for mini-busses and tuktuk (automobile rickshaw) vehicles. Disputes also arise about the royalties imposed on parking spaces for transport vehicles. The current production relations and the backwardness of the productive forces have deprived the poor of their right to live in the city and of the possibility of their planned and organized urban expansion. In fact, the financiers, bureaucracy, security services, and the army monopolize this expansion because it makes up an enormous wealth.

Land and space are main sources of wealth in Egypt, which means the social conflict revolves around land. It also makes real estate investment the most lucrative. Due to the lack of the development of productive forces in Egypt, the conflict over the public and private spaces has become the closest to the public imagination.

Since 2005, the conflict over land has intensified, with the main poles of the conflict being the state and the investors on the one hand and the residents on the other. Perhaps the most prominent of these recent conflicts is the authorities’ conflict with the residents of Al-Warraq Island in the heart of the Nile in Cairo, where the authority practiced all forms of repression to force the residents there to abandon their lands.

II- Informal Settlements Between Authority Discourse and Police Administration

Informal settlements per se, or being within or mixed with densely populated towns, were an urgent question raised by several state agencies, such as the Ministries of Tourism and Housing and real estate investors. Some notes in the book “Cairo is a Global City ” pointed to permanent attempts to isolate the local population (officials sometimes call them “the mob” or “the locals”) from archaeological areas, especially in Mubarak’s ambitious project to develop Old Cairo. These areas were also a police concern for the Egyptian Ministry of Interior in managing them, which did not differ much from the management of densely populated areas. Violence, terrorism, torture, informants, patrols, security crackdowns, and clientelist relations were all part of the strategy of the Ministry of Interior to bring these areas under control, which meant subjugating the general population in Egypt, as well as separating and isolating social spaces as much as possible.

How can it be suppressed?

A BBC Arabic News report said: "When the engineer Hussein Sabbour worked as an adviser to the government in the 1980s, the government was planning to remove the informal settlements in the city center and move their residents outside the scope of the Cairo Ring Road that the government was building at the time. He told the BBC that this would make it easier for the government to contain any potential popular protests. He added: "The informal settlement dwellers might rebel for any reason. So it will be easier to contain them when they are outside the Ring Road.” The idea of getting rid of the informal settlements by isolating them outside the city has been present since the beginning of their expansion. The motivating forces were the investors on the one hand, who have ambitions for profiting off of these areas, and the security and police personnel on the other hand, who seek to further isolate and tighten their security grip on these areas.

The police management of these informal settlements constituted one of the major concerns for the Egyptian Ministry of Interior. It did not differ much from the ministry’s management of densely populated towns. Violence, terrorism, torture, informants, patrols, security crackdowns, and clientelist relations were all part of the strategy of the Ministry to bring these areas under control.

In 1992, an earthquake that killed more than 500 people and displaced about 10,000 families gave rise to striking developments concerning the approach to the question of informal settlements. It is the same year in which the Islamic Group announced its control over Imbabah. Then violent clashes broke out in Ayn Shams, and the various Islamic groups penetrated Al-Matariyah. At the time, the state moved from exercising its policeman role to a political role that produced a discourse which perceived informal settlements as a threat and as a security issue rather than a social or economic issue. The media and cinematic machine worked on formulating an integrated discourse to demonize informal settlements, presenting them as hubs of crime and terrorism. Later, the discourse further developed, portraying informal settlements as a threat to the middle class, saying that their residents were bound to attack the wealthy neighborhoods as soon as they got the chance.

These events and this discourse have serious repercussions for these areas. The government put Imbabah under siege and set up military checkpoints at most entrances and exits of Al-Matariyah, which are still in place today (two checkpoints below and above the Musturud Bridge, Abbud checkpoint, and Al-Marj checkpoint, which is the only one that no longer exists). Ayn Shams was also under a prolonged siege throughout the 1990s. It has not recovered from the tightness of the security grip until now, although the iron fist of the Ministry of Interior has become less heavy. Moreover, these events and this discourse had ramifications on the other informal settlements that have no terrorists and no Islamic danger under the pretext that they were a threat to the general values of Egyptian society, an embodiment of the collapse of the Egyptian moral system, and imminent danger to the rest of society. This was expressed by a State Security officer who commented on Al-Matariyah, bluntly stating: “We want to build walls around [the area] and turn it into a prison.” Police stations also used brutal methods in managing these areas. Despite this widespread demonization of the informal settlements, the authorities and businessmen have exploited these densely populated areas in acts of violence, bullying, social mobilization, and suppression of political opponents, as well as in the personal battles of their powerful representatives.

Not shantytowns

Simply put, the problem with this discourse is the perception of informal settlements as slums, shantytowns or ghettos. This is indeed the reality of some informal settlements, but this particular type of informal settlements is what the state defines as “dangerous and uninhabitable areas.” However, Egypt's informal settlements, in general, have become entire cities in which millions of people live. They have created an integrated life where residents practice extensive trade and large-scale urbanization, and where their children attend universities. Despite the harsh material reality of many of the unplanned dwellings, these slums witnessed epic efforts to create educated generations who can remain far from the realms of crime and thuggery. They were raised under very harsh conditions, whether due to poverty and underdeveloped infrastructure or violence and various forms of lawlessness. Again, informal settlements are not an expression of something exceptional in Egypt; they are an expression of the general population of the urban cluster.

The idea of getting rid of the informal settlements by isolating them outside the city has been present since their expansion began. The motivating forces were the investors on the one hand, who have ambitions in these areas, and the security and police personnel on the other hand, who seek to further isolate and tighten the security grip on these areas.

Informal settlements cannot be separated from the economy in general. Some estimates indicate that the percentage of the informal (unregulated) economy in Egypt amounts to 40% of the total economic activity. (This percentage does not include the “criminal economy”, such as thuggery, prostitution, drug and arms trade.) Logically, the economy and urbanization go hand in hand.

Drugs, illicit trade, and squatters as stabilizing or destabilizing factors

Informal settlements have been safe havens for various crimes and illicit trades, primarily the drug trade. Newly emerging areas that crystallized distinctly as slums or overpopulated neighborhoods found themselves in a competition with the old drug trade centers. In Alexandria, the old, stable popular towns - such as Al-Manshiyah, Al-Hadrah, Bahri, Ras al-Tin, Karmus, and Al-Labban - continued to prevail, perhaps to this day. Even in the world of crime and thuggery, western Alexandria continued to have predominance and power, even after the emergence of some new thugs who made a name after engaging in some fierce battles in their newly established areas. They have become stars in the criminal world, such as Muhammad al-Ahmar from Abu Suleiman. Starting as an informal settlement, Abu Suleiman has become one of the big densely populated towns in Alexandria. It benefited from utilities, obtained building licenses, and settled building violations. Most of its homes have electricity meters. Water, telephone, and all other utility bills are collected from the area. Moreover, some other names from Sidi Bishr and Al-Mandarah have become stars in the realm of crime. Yet “power” in the broad and profound sense of the word remained in the hands of the old popular areas, despite the big human conglomeration in the more recently-founded informal areas. No matter how violent and tough the people of the new world are - even if some of their groups are formed from Upper Egyptian and rural clans - they cannot compete with the steady and extended families in the old areas, with their ability to organize violence and mobilize their resources, and with their access to weapons and ammunition. Abu Suleiman, which is close to Bakus, cannot in any way compete with the Upper Egyptian and nomadic Arab families who became Alexandrians by their successive generations in the old Bakus a long time ago. Nor can it invade the areas of trade in it, whether legal or illegal. The same goes for the Hagar al-Nawatiyah area, which is close to Al-Hadrah and the Fruit and Vegetable Agency, which cannot compete with Al-Hadrah in its “underworld activities”.

Despite this widespread demonization of the informal settlements, the authorities and businessmen have exploited these densely populated areas in acts of violence, thuggery, social mobilization, and suppression of political opponents, as well as in the personal battles of their influential officials.

However, the new world had beginner's luck in the sense that it evolved away from the eye of the security agencies and their heavy presence on a daily and institutional basis and away from the security crackdowns and patrols that have ruled the most densely populated towns and informal settlements for decades. The absence of a wide institutionalized state presence allowed the new areas to gradually become areas for storage and trade. This is in addition to the fact that some new areas, such as Al-Matariyah, overlook long drug trade routes such as the Bilbeis agricultural and desert roads. But most of the new areas took some time to become stable trade areas for several reasons:

1. Transportation: The lack of easy movement between informal settlements and the old world, whether in densely populated towns or wealthy areas. This problem persisted for a long time, as they were considered secluded areas.

2. Security and stability: It is highly unlikely that a resident would harass a passerby or that the drug dealer would assault someone buying drugs for personal use in a densely populated town such as Bahri or Al-Manshiyah. These areas run a disciplined commercial space and value consumer security. Unlike densely populated towns, where the consumer most often fears the interference of security personnel rather than that of the area’s residents, we notice that the consumer in informal settlements fears an assault from the area itself rather than from the security agents.

3. Quality and consumer appreciation: Older, more stable markets try to collect loyal customers and win them over. This is unlike the newer informal settlements which lack a stable commercial and economic logic.

4. Drug dealers in densely populated towns rarely take hard drugs from the sort that creates difficulties in verbal communication and causes a fear of the dealer himself, as is the case for many young people who distribute and sell drugs in slums. The foregoing does is not meant to portray a rosy picture of the densely populated towns and their discipline.

5. The big drug dealers in the old densely populated neighborhoods are capable of controlling the neighborhoods and creating good relations with the rest of the residents. In many informal settlements and slums, we can see a young drug distributor starting a fierce and bloody fight with another over the control of a specific street corner, for example. The residents of the same street can also be hostile to the young distributors or drug dealers because of various grudges and problems that rise in the neighborhood, such as the harassment of women, excessive display of violence and force, and exposing the street to risks and security crackdowns.

We can say that the first and fifth factors are among the most important differences that draw the features of stability or instability of the various areas in question.

Women also have a place in the field

Men and women both engage in the drug trade business and various activities of thuggery. In this regard, the situation in the informal settlements does not differ much from the situation in stable densely populated towns, although we can note that thuggery run by women is more present in informal settlements. This has several reasons, such as the abusive upbringing of women in some areas, the absence of sources of income, the availability of various spaces that allow women’s incursion in running thuggery and violent activities (such as the presence of a large number of minibus stops and tuktuk stops later on), and the need to resort to a normalized form of daily violence to escape the harsh realities of life in these areas. All this opened the door for women to assume a significant role in the realm of crime.

There are, of course, various other individual factors that lead to women’s involvement in crime. For example, some wives get involved in their husbands’ drug trade and some inherit the trade. In addition, there are certain preconceptions about women's roles within certain ethno-social groups such as gypsies (or Romani people), of which men and women have historically worked together in the various Sufi carnivals and festivals, and where women often provide for the family. In some of the long-standing densely populated towns, there is not much disapproval of women running cafés or drug trades in succession to their husbands and family members. It is also common that the whole family, with both its men and women, run the drug trade together. We must point to a crucial fact here: most families' breadwinners are women.

 Although this harsh reality has transcended the preconceptions about women (the exclusion of women, women’s isolation at home, and the male breadwinner), these dominant ideas have returned and made the reality even more painful to women. As a result, women are forced to accept domestic violence, not to mention their fear of complaining about sexual harassment and verbal and physical harm, as women still represent "family honor." Many women avoid revealing that they have been sexually harassed for fear that the men in their family would engage in violent fights with other men. It is not true that women in densely populated towns or informal areas are not sexually harassed because of good neighborliness, tribalism, and prevailing morals. Sexual harassment of women happens every day. The essential difference between one woman and another is the level of protection she enjoys in the area, where violent battles often break out because a woman is sexually harassed.

Women-led thuggery is more common in slum areas but is also found in densely populated towns. Most families’ breadwinners are women. This harsh reality goes beyond preconceptions, but it multiplies the oppression of women.

The truth is that the customary reconciliation sessions and the "arbitrators" of the districts or neighborhoods cannot establish stable relations. Their effective role is activated only after the outbreak of affrays, as they step in to settle disputes and define reparations. A female hairdresser summed up the issue by saying: “If these sessions were effective, their role should have been proactive.” Many women also succumb to domestic violence in order not to get divorced, which still represents a social stigma in many areas, and in order to avoid going back to living under their fathers’ or brothers’ tyranny.

Managing thuggery and clientelism

The structure of power relations does not differ much in informal settlements and other areas, be they rural or popular. Regarding the management of thuggery and drug dealing, clientelistic ties and interest-based networks are often formed between large families, drug dealers, and large or mediocre thugs on the one hand and between the police station, MPs, and former members of the National Democratic Party (NDP) on the other. These relations may be structured and may have specific patterns, but this does not mean they are stable ones, whether in the densely populated towns, the countryside, or even in Upper Egypt and the cities of the Delta. There are a permanent tugs-of-war and changes in the actors within this matrix, whether they are members of the “Miri” (a term that refers to members of the army and police in Egypt), civilians, dignitaries, major drug dealers, or thugs. The Criminal Investigation Department or the State Security Investigations Service in the Interior Ministry often crack some networks for a variety of reasons, such as the growth of these networks in a way that oversteps the boundaries set by the Miri, fear of their independence, involvement of some gang members in clashes with other officers outside these local arrangements, macho frictions, and disagreements over running common zones between some members of the Interior Ministry and these networks. The latter may lead to a complete shattering of these ties and the outbreak of violent clashes between the Miri on the one hand, and drug dealers, thugs, or families on the other.

As a whole, the situation is not just about illegal trade, crime, bullying, squatting, theft, and the trafficking of antiquities. It is essentially an embodiment of a social and political conflict and the rise and fall of families and dignitaries at the level of influence, power, and economy. Sometimes the police, the security directorate, or formerly the NDP rearrange the relationships within legitimate and illegitimate clientelistic networks according to the levels of social status of individuals. The economic and social rise of new families gives them precedence over older families that have lost their status and influence, and so on.

1- What is distinctive about running clientelistic relations in informal settlements is the Interior Ministry's readiness to strike these networks due to the large human surplus of villains and those who aspire to play this role. Also, many young people are willing to engage in violence, whether by proxy or because of individual conflicts. On the other hand, drug dealers and big thugs in informal settlements are incapable of tightening their grip over the social space or of incorporating this large number of young people who are willing to engage in crime into more organized and stable networks. Hence, networks may be re-formed seasonally according to need, for example, at the time of an elections or when there is a need to strike some political opponents.

2- Or it may be due to the lack of adequate protection for the network, based on symbolic and social capital and relationships outside the narrow space of the informal settlement itself, which makes it easier for the Ministry of Interior to exploit the members of the network, even if the latter cooperate with it.

3- The Ministry of Interior's police handling of this human surplus made terrorism and intimidation the basis of the relationship. But the 1990s gave these informal settlements a relative opportunity to build some stable clientelism-based networks. With the intensification of the war on terrorism, in particular, there was a need for the Ministry of Interior to rely heavily on criminal-based clientelism networks to infiltrate Islamist groups in these areas. Subsequently, the NDP and the Interior Ministry stepped up to exploit this human surplus in political violence and intimidation of opponents even within the NDP itself, as happened in the 2010 elections, where party members quarreled among each other.

Power relations do not differ much between informal settlements and other areas. Regarding the management of thuggery and drugs, clientelist ties are often formed between large families, drug dealers, and thugs on the one hand and between the police station, MPs, and former NDP members on the other. What is distinctive about running clientelist relations in informal settlements is the Interior Ministry's readiness to strike these networks due to the large human surplus.

Unlike the densely populated towns, the countryside, and the delta cities, the instability of these relations remained the main feature in informal settlements. Even Upper Egypt has witnessed a major social transformation after the Interior Ministry’s over-reliance on the so-called Al-Rawabit (wanted criminals and some thugs who control mountain passes and roads to facilitate the arms trade) to strike Islamic groups that had successfully assembled themselves from some notables and sons of senior families in Upper Egypt.

Like other areas throughout Egypt, including the middle-class areas, the modern areas that crystallized greatly in the 1980s and the 1990s suffered from the widespread violence, excessive torture, intimidation, and state terrorism of the Ministry of Interior. Therefore, we should not perceive the case of informal settlements in Egypt as if it were exceptional, especially since these settlements took shape following the development of urban and construction clusters in the country.

The legal overlaps with the illegal

The equation in the new world was more complex, and the size of the population and the managed areas was vast. Things get more complicated when informal settlements overlap with the old densely populated towns, such as Imbabah in Cairo; Abu Suleiman in Alexandria, which overlaps with Bakus and Ghabriel; Al-Hadrah al-Jadidah, which overlaps with the world of the historical fruit and vegetable agency in Alexandria; and Ayn Shams that overlaps with Heliopolis.

 The space itself was more contested than the drug trade. One can say the space is vast enough to be difficult to control and, at the same time, narrow enough to bring more rivalries. Let's suppose that there are 20 drug-selling booths in Imbabah, a number circulated among residents, and five key drug dealers until the end of the 1980s. With the increase in internal migration to Imbabah and its extension to Bashtin, along with the elimination of the remaining agricultural areas, the new areas’ young people began to fight on street corners. They fight for various reasons, including ones related to the drug trade itself, or to macho tensions or neighborhood bickering, which made local leaders or major dealers, whether in drugs or others, lose the ability to control and create a system of discipline around trade and selling. It is unlike the old areas such as Al-Manshiyah in Alexandria. Imbabah does not differ much from Abu Suleiman in Alexandria in this regard. Some people from various areas in Alexandria and Cairo said that there had been attempts to control the area, but those have been unsuccessful. These new groups of young people did not see the point in obeying anyone in light of the large internal consumption of drugs and the entry of various drug pills that led to more brutality. Also, a young man can earn close to 200 Egyptian pounds [about $10.9] of net profit per day, or close to 400 pounds [about $21.8] at present. That is what a young man can get in ten days of hard work in various unstable jobs. This led to investment in this human surplus. These young people are just daring and ferocious “bodies” that are considered “low-cost” to drug dealers, big thugs, and the Ministry of Interior.

This situation led to more internal tension between the young distributors and residents. The conflict sometimes amounts to a bloody affray between the residents of the street and the young distributor and his gang. Of course, this brought about more security crackdowns, not only in terms of combating the drug trade but due to the frequent outbreak of violent affrays.

The presence of drug trafficking or bullying in informal settlements does not mean that the whole area is complicit in this situation. There are people who want to end their day in peace, even if some of them are drug users. No one wants affrays and quarrel under the balcony of his house. No one wants to expose his children to the dangers of these clashes and to lure a heavy security presence.

 Also, the relationship between the sale and abuse of drugs by young distributors, especially types of pills with powerful effects such as Apetryl tablets, makes negotiation processes difficult. In some cases, language itself; not the dialect or vocabulary, but language as a medium of communication becomes an obstacle.

However, some new areas have succeeded in creating more stable markets. Although thuggery and squatting created unrest and conflict, on the one hand, they succeeded in providing stability on the other. As is the case in the rest of Egypt and its regulated and legitimate economic sectors, real estate is the best way to save and invest. Some of these investments have succeeded in reconstructing informal settlements in a random, illegal, or semi-legal way through real estate and the opening of new shops, which made some areas safer.

 The expansion of road networks improved the connectivity between these and other areas. Some drug dealers succeeded in creating a stable situation in some areas within the larger informal settlements. For example, in the 1990s, Muhammad al-Ahmar succeeded in controlling part of Abu Suleiman, reducing the violence of Izbat Dana and creating a relatively stable market in a significant part of a vast area. Also, some middle-income capitalists who are engaged in legitimate trade have succeeded in reconstructing these areas, making them livelier and less isolated. In addition, patterns of trade, in which legal and illegal aspects are mixed, succeeded in creating a new, more developed urban and security situation on a daily basis, and made these areas attractive for real estate investments. With time, some succeeded in creating friendly relations with their neighbors and avoiding problems and quarrels by following the old logic of the drug trade. Some of them even turned into sources of protection and security; they succeeded in creating social solidarity networks within their areas. The neighborhood residents still tell multiple accounts about how women threw the bedspreads at Muhammad al-Ahmar to cover him when the Ministry of Interior’s agents arrested him naked and took him down the street. The situation is not much different in Al-Matariyah. According to the the most recent analysis, what is now the huge region known as Al-Matariyah, with its various areas - some of which have wealthy districts - is the product of a wide overlap between drug trade, antiquities trade, squatting, new illegal construction, and some local factories that were built illegally or semi-legally in some aspects. The surpluses of this wealth have created a large part of the urban cluster that we know today. Unlike the 1980s and 1990s, these surpluses made these areas more open to the rest of the city.

El-Sissi and informal settlements

It is too early to judge Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sissi's management of informal settlements. What he is doing is not entirely new. However, he is the only President who has had the means to practice the repression and violence necessary to carry out forced evictions. It does not mean that El-Sissi's management of the informal settlements is based solely on violence. 

The state has already negotiated with a large number of residents of the so-called "dangerous areas," which have priority in the process of eviction and reconstruction, such as Tal al-Aqarib in Al-Sayyidah Zeinab. The state succeeded in evacuating them with a mixture of violence and persuasion. However, they were returned to their homes after the area was rebuilt. El-Sissi's strategy and objectives do not differ from the attempts made by various governments during the Mubarak era, especially Nazif’s government and a group of businessmen who gathered around Gamal Mubarak and the succession project.

El-Sissi's regime is driven by three motives in dealing with informal settlements:

1. The greed for the lands of informal settlements within the old densely populated towns, the wealth and the sizable real estate investment opportunities they present. This motive is simultaneous with the transformation of the state, specifically the military establishment, into a speculator – and a monopolist - in the real estate market. In this context, we should note that the authority and financiers thereby needed to expand in cities at the expense of informal settlements. It is a phenomenon known as “urban stratification substitution.” This was clearly demonstrated in Alexandria, where Al-Mahmudiyah Canal was filled in and many informal settlements built along its banks were removed. The government moved their residents to the Bashayir al-Khayr 1, 2, and 3 projects.

2. Tightening the security grip on the urban cluster, especially with the state’s fear of another January revolution.

3. The presence of hazardous areas that must be removed. What is most worrying about this point is not the violence, cruelty, or brawls that erupt with some of the settled population in areas that have a long established presence, such as Jazirat al-Warraq. What is truly worrying about what El-Sissi is doing is that projects such as the Al-Asmarat neighborhood and Bashayir al-Khayr become a permanent residence for these dwellers despite the reconstruction of the areas they used to live in. These neighborhoods are an embodiment of the idea of isolating a group of residents, placing them under a security siege inside fenced cities, and placing permanent forces from the Interior Ministry and the army to monitor them at the entrance and exit gates. Some residents have already returned to their areas again, but others are still waiting to be moved, whether to these projects or to their previous areas.

The core of the question is: What should we do with the informal settlement dwellers? Where will most of the urban population in Egypt live? 

The content of this publication is the sole responsibility of Assafir Al-Arabi and Rosa Luxemburg Foundation cannot accept any liability for it.

Translated from Arabic by Sabry Zaki
Published in Assafir Al-Arabi on 12/09/2019

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