Cairo, Egypt

by David Sims, with contribution from
Monika El-Shorbagi and Marion Séjoumé


Most Cairo slums resulted from explosive post-World War II population growth. But it wasn’t until the mid 1960s that slums really started to appear, with little official resistance to informal and clearly illegal subdivision and construction on the agricultural lands at the urban fringes. Almost without exception, the slums started off from existingsatellite villages because rural housing was unregulated, and uncontrolled development could thus be ‘overlooked’.

During the 1967 to 1973 period of military conflict, all formal development in Cairo froze as the war effort soaked up most of the financial resources available. Demographic growth, however, continued unabated, including evacuees from the Canal Zone, and informal settlement growth boomed. Substantial urban fringe areas, already largely subdivided, were sold during this period, expanding the urban limits. This was further compounded by expansion from the satellite villages.

The 1974 to 1985 oil boom in the Gulf States and the subsequent remittances of Egyptian workers there provided investments for the population groups attracted by Cairo’s urban informal areas and caused further massive informal
housing activity at the urban fringes.

During the period of 1986 to 2000, the process consolidated with a reduction in new land for residential purposes due to:

the drying-up of foreign remittances;
significant falls in population growth rates; and
strict control over agricultural-to-residential land conversion.

Only recently, the Egyptian government has formally recognized the existence of ‘deteriorated and underserved urban residential areas’ and applies the term aashiwa’i (random), indicating their unplanned and illegal nature.

The main slum types in Cairo are as follows:

Informal settlements on private, former agricultural lands. These consist of private residences built on land purchased informally from farmers at the urban
fringes on informally subdivided plots and without building permits. Housing is generally of a good, permanent type, often incremental and at places even high rise (10 to 14 storeys). Although initially ignored by the government, it has now become a criminal act to utilize scarce agricultural lands for residential purposes.

Informal settlements on desert state lands. These consist of private residences built informally on stateowned, vacant desert land. Strictly speaking, this is land invasion and land squatting and construction without permits; but semi-legality emerged on the basis of customary rights and nominal land rents paid. Government policy is to grant post-facto legalization. Housing quality and crowding conditions tend to be worse that in informal settlements on private, former agricultural lands.

Deteriorated sections of the old city core. These comprise pre-1860 sections of medieval Cairo, with a mixture of dilapidated and sound buildings, with the former buildings often being the result of ownership disputes and lack of maintenance resulting from tight rent controls and non-profitability of rental. Residents are generally very poor; but the population in these areas is declining as a result of increasing conversion of residential into commercial spaces and the collapse of entire buildings due to lack of maintenance.

Deteriorated urban pockets. Various inner-city areas of Cairo, notably those from the early 20th century, have pockets of dilapidated one- to three-storey structures that house poor families. These are characterized by insecure tenure and limited housing investment. They generally attract poor families seeking the cheapest possible housing solutions. Numerically, this group is very insignificant.

City-wide, the tenure types in slums can roughly be divided into 50 per cent owners and 50 per cent renter. No figures are available on current slum dynamics.

In Cairo, urban poverty is not notably concentrated in particular geographic areas. Poor and ultra poor families are found mixed in with lower- and middle-income families in a wide number of older core neighbourhoods and in the vast informal areas of Greater Cairo. In most informal areas, there is a small percentage of well-off entrepreneurs and professionals. This spatial income heterogeneity is due to such historical factors as lack of residential mobility, rent control and imperfect real estate markets.

A ‘Master Plan of Cairo’ was published in 1956 that led, in 1958, to the Nasr City scheme, an ambitious desert fringe development organized through a public-sector concession company affiliated with the Ministry of Housing. A public housing programme was launched, and by 1965 the Cairo Governorate had constructed almost 15,000 units for low-income families. It was only during the period of 1974 to 1985 that the government started to address the booming informal areas by preserving state and agricultural lands from encroachments. The Egyptian government had only then officially recognized how vast the informal areas were, and that there were deteriorated or underserved urban residential areas, and launched its new towns policy. Starting in 1992, after some poorer urban areas were perceived as breeding grounds for political instability, the government finally launched a programme to improve informal or
aashwa’i areas throughout Egypt.

Despite some successes in slowing down the further encroachment of Cairo on its urban fringes, informal building is still going on. In spite of the massive investments required and the rather limited success in attracting population to date, the policy of creating modern planned desert settlements remains the Government’s ultimate solution to the phenomenon of urban informality, the idea
being to offer alternatives which will absorb the millions who are in or would otherwise go to informal areas of Greater Cairo. Recent comparisons of satellite pictures indicate that informal encroachment on agricultural lands continues at a rate triple that of ‘formal’ expansion.

This summary has been extracted from:

UN-Habitat (2003) Global Report on Human Settlements 2003, The Challenge of Slums, Earthscan, London; Part IV: 'Summary of City Case Studies', pp195-228.
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2003 Development Planning Unit | Anna Soave | Khanh Tran-Thanh