Early one morning during Ramadan in September 2008, a mass of rock collapsed in the Cairo neighborhood of Dewe’a, leaving more than 130 people dead under the rubble. The devastation was such that the government was unable to retrieve the bodies for burial, and immediately decided to establish a unit responsible for issues related to so-called “slums.” The Informal Settlement Development Fund (ISDF) was established and began to work late 2008, starting with relocating all residents of unsafe areas nationally. Following international criteria set by the United Nations Human Settlements Program (U.N.-Habitat), the ISDF classified more than 400 areas as unsafe, based on four degrees of threats: location in a flood pathway, unsuitable shelter conditions, area health risks, and instability of tenure. Among these areas was the Maspero Triangle neighborhood, located in southern Bulaq Abulella district, because of unsuitable living conditions.
Ten years later, the Maspero Triangle has become a source of tension between residents and government officials demanding that they vacate the neighborhood, so it can be developed and reneging on promises of community involvement in development plans. While Egyptian media portray the process as a participatory one, interviews conducted with residents and community representatives since 2015 show the reality: over the past decade it has become more of a forced eviction with the aim to gentrify the Maspero Triangle.
The Egyptian government uses the term of “development of slums” to describe its efforts to relocate residents, which include forced evictions and the use of security forces to remove the families. However, the term “development” does not accurately describe these efforts. Modern developmental approaches depend on several phases, starting with conversations with residents—in other words, participatory urban action planning. This method requires a significant amount of time as well as intensive ethnographical methodology to understand the culture of the local community, in addition to economic, social, political, and urban issues. It then includes a participatory design phase in which planners work with residents to design models envisioning ways to upgrade the area. This process cannot be done without transparency from both sides—particularly from the government—so that trust and cooperation can be established. This method of planning is more likely to guarantee long-term stability and security, as it involves the community in decision-making processes. In the case of Maspero, the project’s urban planners began working with residents and following principles of participatory urban planning and design, but the government changed course, taking the route of a typical gentrification agenda.
The History of Maspero Triangle Development
The Maspero Triangle is a historical neighborhood located between al-Galaa Street, 26th of July Street, and the Nile Corniche. Two crucial government buildings, the Egyptian Radio and Television Union headquarters and the Foreign Affairs Ministry, as well as the Italian consulate, are located in the 84-acre neighborhood, along with residential areas and hotels. Some areas dated back to the Mamluk-era 1400s, while the rest was built in the 1800s; however, an earthquake in 1992 affected the majority of the historical areas. Many houses needed maintenance and repairs to be safe for use, but the government refused to grant repair licenses to the owners and tenants. In 1997, Cairo governorate became interested in buying some of the houses, and Maspero for Urban Development, a company established the same year, began purchasing houses as well.
The situation remained largely unchanged until 2008, when Cairo governorate started to announce the evacuation of many families because of unsafe housing conditions. The displacement intensified through the year, and residents were relocated to al-Nahda and Assalam housing projects in the northeast part of Greater Cairo. The same year, youth living in the Maspero Triangle
established the Maspero Youth Association to mobilize residents against the relocation process and the demolition of the area for what they viewed as gentrification. Also in 2008, the public began to learn about the Cairo 2050 project, which was unofficially announced in the media by some government figures. The project document, which included plans for the Maspero Triangle to become part of a tourist, recreational, and development center, was then leaked. The Maspero Youth Association decided to act, and cooperated with an architectural design group to envision how the area could be upgraded without the demolishing the poor, historical area. Two years later, this plan was presented to the General Organization of Physical Planning, which is part of the Ministry of Housing. The vision was never implemented.
The Maspero Youth Association became active again after two houses in Othman Rashdan Alley collapsed in December 2011, leaving 11 people dead. The association organized a protest against Cairo governorate, which had refused to issue repair permits to residents. While the protest led to a meeting between residents and the governor of Cairo, the meetings did not lead to any results. The governor later announced a plan that included the construction of 64 towers and relocation of residents to other neighborhoods. Residents blocked roads and sprayed graffiti on the walls, refusing to leave their neighborhood.
Attempts at Community Involvement
In the same year, a team from the Egyptian Center for Civil and Legislative Reform (ECCLR) volunteered to provide legal support to Maspero Triangle residents. The ECCLR conducted social and legal studies of the area for presentation to officials, and added an urban design vision component to the studies. Madd Platform, an independent group of architecture and urban design researchers and planners, agreed to take the responsibility of this component. The team began fieldwork in July 2013, and in a year, it had a comprehensive vision based on participatory methods of how the Maspero Triangle could be upgraded without evicting families or demolishing buildings.
In June the following year, ECCLR and Madd presented the outcomes to the Maspero Youth Association, emphasizing that the teams supported residents’ rights to stay. A month later, ECCLR cofounder Baher Shawki met with Laila Eskandar of the newly established Ministry of Urban Renewal and Informal Settlements. Because of her background in grassroots organization, Eskandar prioritized the project, visiting the area, listening to residents, and ensuring that Madd’s team worked with them collaboratively. Then, she started a series of meetings with representatives from the Maspero Youth Association, Madd, and ECCLR. The Madd team essentially proposed rezoning the Maspero Triangle to allow each owner collective land ownership in one designated zone, with 12 acres to be an apartment building where current residents could relocate. The proposal was approved by both owners and residents—a major achievement. Madd continued to work with families and the ministry to survey the area and understand how many families wanted to leave, how many wanted compensation, and how many wanted to stay. The majority chose to stay and relocate to the proposed apartment building. Madd prepared terms of references and highly detailed description of the zoning for the ministry to start an open architectural tender. A few months later, the British architectural firm Foster + Partners won the bid, and members of the Maspero Youth Association were included on the project’s steering committee.
Yet in June 2016, ministerial changes in the government resulted in the transfer and eventual collapse of community participation in the project. Eskandar’s ministry closed its doors, and she no longer had authority to meet with families and hear complaints. The project was transferred to Ministry of Housing and taken over by Cairo governorate and a team from ISDF under the ministry’s supervision. The ministry changed all rental values of the new units that should be available for the residents, and the government’s promises began to change. The old housing values ranged between 165 and 800 Egyptian pounds (LE), while the new values ranged between LE1,400 and LE2,050. These rents were unaffordable for residents, leading a majority to choose compensation or relocation to another housing project located at least one hour’s drive from their neighborhood, rather than wait for an unknown future.
Residents sought to guarantee compensation, lacking trust in the government and believing it ignored their demands. After the summer of 2017, it was too late to change their decisions about their living situations, after the government began to relocate tenants to al-Asmaraat project in Moqattam neighborhood. That October, the government started to compensate families and issue checks to them. Families leaving the area were told to remove a window as physical proof that they would not return; meanwhile, the government decreased the compensation amount for shop owners.
Maspero Youth Association members felt betrayed—by families who changed their decisions about staying, though they understood that no one could afford the new rent values, and by the government, which stopped involving them and began to move forward with the project on their own terms, threatening families with forced evictions if they rejected the government’s terms. In February 2018, out 4,500 families, 3,200 had reportedly left, while 850 had to decide to stay, 170 remained undecided, and 300 families had not yet received compensation. The governorate gave families a week to leave, before an engineering committee would start to demolish the homes. In late April, the government started to tear down homes. Residents have published photos of the demolition on their Facebook group and expressed sorrow or skepticism about whether they will be able to return.
The community-led Maspero Triangle project had been the first of its kind in contemporary Egypt, and an unprecedented model for the government to follow. Urban activists including myself had waited for two years to observe how it would be implemented; we were skeptical that the government would follow its old strategies of forced evictions and relocating residents to other areas. Moreover, the government’s al-Asmarat project was implemented to relocate residents of Cairo’s informal settlements to one place. These developments make clear that the Maspero Triangle plan is merely another project aiming to gentrify the neighborhood. Instead of using bulldozers to tear down houses while families are inside—as took place on al-Warraq island, leading to violence—the government played a game, touting the project as participatory, but then changing the terms to force families to choose to leave.
The complex history of the Maspero Triangle raises difficult questions for residents, the government, and other stakeholders that have important policy implications. These include the potential impact of reversals of participatory efforts on future attempts at inclusive urban planning and development, as well as the likelihood of residents resisting attempts at development and refusing to cooperate with government plans.
While the answers to such questions are not straightforward, the cases of al-Warraq and the Maspero Triangle indicate that these multifaceted issues cannot be addressed by the government alone and require the participation of all stakeholders. Doing otherwise risks implementing unsustainable plans and creating situations of protracted conflict.