Last winter, calls were made for the Egyptian Military Technical College to open its gates and house the homeless. These calls were refused, though this created no scandal. Then the winter passed, and the summer sun returned.
Now, a new winter has come amid noteworthy activity (even if its effect has been limited in comparison to the need) from popular organizations that are working calmly to form what have recently been named “cold control forces,” an allusion to the “riot control forces” that the Egyptian army uses in street patrols day and night.
At least 12 million Egyptians suffer from cold, hunger and fear. They are the inhabitants of makeshift houses, metal sheets and graveyards. They are also the homeless who live beneath bridges, garages, shops and cardboard boxes. According to official statistics, there are 1,221 informal housing areas in Egypt not subject to state planning, but this does not mean that all of them are fit for human habitation. Many of the largest of informal areas have been converted into small, narrow, adjacent residences that steal public services such as electricity and water. Most of their inhabitants are very poor Sa’idi families who left the inhospitable plains and mountains for the expanses of the valley.
Generations have followed in succession, and problems accumulated without being solved as needier groups arose, like those who sleep in graveyards, metal shacks and makeshift homes. These groups occupy at least 40% of the areas identified by the state as unplanned and outside of service coverage. Some government land surveys have indicated that a region like al-Basatin, an old green space that has been converted over time into the main area for the construction of cemeteries in Cairo, can house some 1.5 million residents alone.
This large community includes a number of categories and even various socio-economic classes. There are families who have lost their provider, or whose provider has been demoted, thus forcing them to move to these low-rent areas. There are also groups who are in more dire straits, and who seem more emblematic of the problem of homelessness, such as “the second generation of street children,” which is a generation that has resulted from the marriage or coupling of young people. They represent a new group of unrecognized families, without a provider or access to welfare.
Homelessness, in the literal meaning of the term, is a phenomenon that is embodied to the greatest extent in the capital. In Cairo, more than elsewhere — and especially downtown — one repeatedly sees the stereotypical image of homeless men or elderly women sleeping under bridges or living in doorways in “houses” made of cardboard and tin. They have never known any other form of housing. Where did all of these people come from, and have they ever lived another way? More than 10 years ago, the General Secretariat of Mental Health was alerted to this phenomenon and the need for laws that force families to take responsibility for members who suffer from mental and psychological disorders, since hospitals have become a mere stopover between treatment and homelessness.
Amid these circumstances, this burden falls on the shoulders of officials and those who aspire to authority. The winter cold advances every year, becoming the largest challenge and greatest cause of the greatest suffering for these people. This is especially true following cold spells like the one witnessed this week that reminded people of the harsh weather last year, which resulted in deaths of two homeless people whose pictures were widely circulated at the time. On similar days last year, editors and newspapers who supported Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, then the minister of defense, in his campaign for the presidency called for the gates of the Military Technical College to open to accept the homeless, provide shelter to street children and protect them from the cold as a first step toward rehabilitating them and reintegrating them into society.
But after such calls were made and the election campaign finished, this proposal was rejected in a concise statement by the minister of social security, who affirmed that there were ongoing efforts and that the Ministry of Defense was providing aid, but without any definite statements on this subject. This was accompanied by statements that the Ministry of Social Security was required to do its job and provide the necessary services for the most needy.
Between two winters, a year passed and public scenes have become more heated and widely observed, like the shootings that happen weekly. Yet there was one scene that touched millions of Egyptians: the condition of 192 families expelled from government housing. Officials said they had acquired the housing through intimidation and squatting. But the families said they came from various regions that all suffer the same problem: They were evicted from their homes or their houses were demolished and they were unable to find a replacement, so following the revolution they found and settled in uninhabited units belonging to the state.
The families say they were promised that their status would be legalized in exchange for the payment of rent. They waited and negotiations dragged on until rainwater accumulated and made contact with electrical wires (which had been stolen from the main line and used to light the youth center these families established with the consent of the security services), gravely injuring four children. The fear, chaos and grief of the scene of the injured children caused intense anger and prompted residents' move toward the street. But the authorities were alert and placed forces at the entrances of the area to prevent the families’ anger from spilling into the street.
This is how the state identified its priorities: In the handcuffs of this tent-filled camp that resembled a refugee camp for victims of war on international borders, there were some discussions between the residents and the representatives of the state, but what was not allowed was anger. Therefore, security protocols required the deployment of “riot control forces,” and “riot control” was prioritized over “cold control.” The low temperatures and the lack of public services amounted to a violation of the families’ key rights, including shelter. This scene illustrates a wider context, including the following points:
- With the winter season officially starting in the middle of December, the official records indicated the provision of a quick solution for those harmed by cold. The matter was limited to statements by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab requesting the distribution of food and other basic necessities in the winter season, and the provision of the relevant necessities to the market.
- According to a study produced by the rights organization the Egyptian Center for the Right to Shelter, at a time when 15.5 million people live in slums (more than 3 million families), there are 5.8 million empty housing units that have never been used.
- Since 1952, Egypt has had a “High Council for Winter Aid,” the goal of which is to provide social services to the poor and those affected by winter disasters, especially in villages and undeveloped areas during extreme weather, including floods and monsoons. This aid is provided through “postage stamps” distributed by some government agencies, like those responsible for the food supply, railroads and education. These are then distributed to councils, which provide supplies to those in need. Rights groups have demanded for years that these councils be eliminated, and that these “handouts” — more than 10 million Egyptian pounds per year — either be banned or made subject to direct supervision by parliament, due to accusations of corruption and claims that the needy do not benefit from the program.
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