Confiscation of shared spaces in Egypt creates the urban crisis

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For many years, the Mokattam Hill Corniche was a favourite destination for lovers of the city of Cairo, especially its ancient archaeological neighbourhoods, as it allows them to look at its charm and splendour from a height, taking advantage of the size of the plateau by about 200 meters above sea level. Now, the government has confiscated this free promenade and built a three-meter-high concrete wall along the entire corniche in preparation for handing it over to a Saudi company for “development”.

The confiscation of the Mokattam Corniche is a new episode in a long series of violations by the Egyptian government of citizens’ rights in public spaces, to the point where it has become challenging for citizens to find a free park in large cities such as Cairo and Alexandria. This stems from a vision that considers every public space a missed opportunity for business and investment.

“Development” at the expense of citizens

Last June, Al-Nasr Housing and Development Company, affiliated with the Ministry of Public Business Sector and owner of the entire Mokattam Corniche, signed a partnership contract with the Saudi global engineering company, Scoop, to “develop and grow the Mokattam Corniche.” According to the advertiser, the project’s land is on an area of 1.7 million square meters. Its construction will take five years at an estimated cost of 32 billion pounds ($1.72 billion at the exchange rates of that period), while the expected revenues are about 61 billion pounds ($3.28 billion). The project includes the construction of an integrated residential compound, a walkway, a bike path, a garden, a chain of restaurants and cafes, a commercial bazaar area, an amusement park area, a glass bridge, a telescope area for amateur astronomers and stargazers, and malls. The company did not clarify whether entry to the corniche would be with tickets or for free, a question posed by many residents of Mokattam and lovers of the Cairo Plateau, especially since the bad experience of the “Cairo Nile Corniche” is still lingering in their minds.

In March 2022, the government opened a 1.8-kilometre walkway on the Nile Corniche in Cairo after it had “developed” it, including the construction of 5 restaurants, five cafeterias, 62 shops, and three garages with a total capacity of 180 cars. At first, entry to the walkway was free, but soon the government imposed a fee of 20 pounds ($1 at the period’s exchange rates) per person on entering what was supposed to be a public space for picnics. One outing now costs a family of only four persons 80 pounds in a country where the minimum wage is 3,000 pounds. Not far from the Nile Corniche in Cairo, low-income citizens who live in the downtown area and its environs in Cairo used to take a walk in a small garden facing the Abdeen Palace – one of the most famous palaces of the royal era in Egypt – to escape from the confinement of cramped houses and the summer heat, and in search of an outlet for their children to play in away from the streets full of cars.

From time to time, the police forces stationed in front of the palace disturbed the peace of the overpowered citizens in the garden, forcing them to break up their seats, take their crying children and return to their homes, with the ever-present justification being “security reasons.” At the beginning of 2022, security concerns abounded. The sight of Abdeen Park empty – except for the police officers assigned to disturb citizens and prevent them from sitting in it – became commonplace. Then, the Cairo Governorate suddenly announced the park’s closure for development.

A few months later, and specifically last April, the features of the development heralded by the province became clear. The open garden was fenced with an iron fence, tickets were imposed on entering it, and several shops, restaurants, and cafes were established under the pretext of “service to the citizens.” In front of the ancient Abdeen Palace, which witnessed historical events such as the Orabi Revolution and the 1952 Revolution, there is now a fish restaurant for 25,000 Egyptian pounds ($820) in monthly rent. Thus, between day and night, the “security reasons” for which citizens’ councils were dissolved in the park disappeared, and the small park, whose area does not exceed 9 acres, needs shops and cafes to serve the citizens. However, the downtown area in which the park is located is teeming with restaurants. And cafes and all the services that any citizen can think of.

The confiscation of public spaces and their transformation into a source of “livestock” does not occur in Cairo alone but extends to various parts of the country. Alexandria, the bride of the Mediterranean and the city of God as some like to call it, its famous corniche was cut and sold to hotels, restaurants and cafes, and the accessible public beaches disappeared. The government now prefers to build a garage directly on the corniche instead of allowing citizens to see the seawater without a barrier. Under Law No. 150 of 2020 regulating parking for vehicles in the streets, known as the “Al-Says Law,” the government confiscated the rights of citizens to park their cars in front of their homes, as neighbourhood administrations are now dividing streets and renting them out to companies and individuals, provided that they collect a subscription fee from citizens. The cost of renting a place for a car in the Haram neighbourhood is 3,500 Egyptian pounds ($114) annually. Even the sidewalks on the roads were kept from nationalization for business. Stalls selling commodities and foodstuffs belonging to the Ministries of Interior and Defense can easily be seen occupying pedestrian sidewalks in various cities, competing for money.

Ordered by Sisi

Since assuming government affairs in 2014, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has been keen to stress in every position and article that “there is nothing for free” and to stress state institutions exploiting their assets to generate financial returns in any way. This led to a change in the mentality of the government administration, becoming its first goal to extract money from the pockets of citizens instead of serving them. Public spaces were the first victims of these policies, as the government regularly confiscated them under the pretext of “development” without regard for citizens’ rights. A citizen who wants to picnic has to “pay,” and terms such as “excursion for the poor” have disappeared from the government’s dictionary.

According to updated figures dating back to before the Corona pandemic and the economic crisis afflicting the country, these policies are approved in a country where 30% of its population lives below the poverty line and 4.5% lives in extreme poverty. While the World Bank estimates, dating back to 2019, indicate that “60% of Egypt’s population is either poor or at risk of poverty.” This is an attack on the rights of citizens enshrined in the Constitution. Article 44 affirms “every citizen’s right to enjoy the Nile,” while Article 45 states “the right of every citizen to enjoy” the country’s seas, beaches, and lakes, and Article 46 states that “every person has the right to a healthy and safe environment.”