As part of Cairo Vision 2050, which was announced by the Egyptian government in 2008 with the aim of developing Cairo into a ‘global city’, ambitious plans are set for the development of the Pyramids’ Plateau and its surroundings in Western Giza, Greater Cairo Region (GCR). To achieve the plans, at least 50,000 people from the nearby Nazlet El-Semman neighborhood, who work in the tourism sector and depend
greatly on their location, will have to be relocated to other parts of the city. The government officials’ argument is that such plans would bring economic revenues for the country as a whole.
The Giza Plateau
The Pyramids of Giza lie on the Pyramids’ Plateau (also known as Giza Plateau) which is considered one of the world’s most distinctive historical sites and is a registered UNESCO World Heritage Site. What many people do not know, though, is that at the foot of this plateau lies the neighborhood of Nazlet El-Semman, a community that has been living there for generations
and who greatly depend on the nearby historical site for their income, are facing displacement.
Historical settlements existing in the area. For instance, at the time of the construction of the pyramids, the Town of the Pyramid Builders Labors’ Village) was constructed at the foot of the plateau to house the construction workers. These houses were no longer necessary by the time the construction was completed and had been abandoned. In addition to this town, a cemetery and the Valley Temple of Khufu existed in the area.
The striking typography between the Pyramids’ Plateau (also known as Giza Plateau) and the Nile Valley has always acted as a border between the ever-expanding bustling city and the ancient heritage, between the past and the present, as well as between the fertile land (life) and the necropolis (the dead). The area surrounding the Pyramids’ Plateau remained largely uninhabited until the first half of the twentieth century after witnessing some major changes that has quickened the rate of habitation. Such factors include the enhanced connectivity between Cairo and the Plateau with the construction of Al-Haram Street in 1869 as well as controlling the flooding of the Nile River with the construction of the High Dam (completed in 1970).
The neighborhood of Nazlet El-Semman has an area of 252 Feddan (106 Hectares or 1.06 sq. km) with 48,300 residents (2006 Census). It is a low income area whose inhabitants work mainly in the tourism sector, offering services such as horse and camel riding to tourists on the Pyramids’ Plateau. Around 85% of the neighborhood consists of residential buildings, whereas 8% are bazaars, selling Egyptian souvenirs which are run by the locals and clustered around Abu-Alhoul touristic axis. Services make up 7% of the land use. There are sixty stables, with 3500 residents working the horse riding and camel riding business. (General Organization of Physical Planning 2011) In addition to bazaars and stables, local shops and services can be found. The settlement is built on agricultural lands which is prohibited by Egyptian law, due to scarcity of fertile land in the Nile Valley. According to a prior study executed by UNESCO along with the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, there are several archeological sites buried underneath the neighborhood. The study claims that northern section of Nazlet al-Semman, called Sen al- Agouz, has been built on the archeological sites of Valley Temple of Khufu and the Town of the Pyramid Builders. The UNESCO study calls for relocation of the residents to allow for excavation of the site.
Cairo Vision 2050 was introduced by the Egyptian government in 2008 as a collaboration between the Cabinet’s Information and Decision Support Center (IDSC) and General Organization for Physical Planning (GOPP) (El-Sebai 2009). It was approved by Egypt’s Prime Minister in 2010 but was disregarded after the 2011 uprisings only to be revisited a year later (TADAMUN 2014). According to the documents, which remain very conceptual with provocative renderings and lack of detailed description, the main aim of the vision is making Cairo a regional and global political influencer as well as a cultural and touristic center. To achieve such targets, the plan proposes highly ambitious and provocative images of a futuristic Cairo, only not quite ultramodern, but rather the opposite. The images mainly show green carpets of parks rolled down with the insertion of shiny glass towers on current dense informal settlements. This image which has been inspired by other city visions such as Paris 2020, Sydney 2030, Abu Dhabi 2030 and Tokyo 2050, replicates modern models which can be seen throughout the various images of the vision in different areas of the capital such as the Maspero Triangle along the Nile waterfront, the relocation of historic cemeteries in Old Cairo and turning the necropolis into, of course, a massive park (Tarbush 2012). Another example is the Khufu Avenue and
parks which is a 10 km long, 600 meter wide grand avenue that links Sphinx square in Mohandessin to the Pyramids’ Plateau. The proposed avenue passes through dense informal areas with thousands of residents must be relocated. There are many problems with this highly ambitious vision. The process of modernization is still seen in terms of a western model that can be applied universally. However, such extravagant plan should take in consideration Egypt’s economic situation even pre-2011 uprisings and the associated political and economical turmoil when the plan was announced.
Nazlet El-Semman under Cairo 2050
The Pyramids’ Plateau Area and the surrounding sites is, naturally, of high interest to the Cairo 2050 vision. The major projects proposed are the Grand Egyptian Museum Hotels (GEM Hotels) north to Nazlet-El Semman, GEM Plaza and parks, Khufu Plaza which is where grand Khufu Avenue meets the Pyramids’ Plateau, the Boulevard which connects the different parts of the project, and lastly the Esplanade, a pedestrian
path connecting the Museum to the Plateau. The area is to be connected to central Cairo though the proposed 4th metro line, and the grand Khufu Avenue (General Organization of Physical Planning 2011).
The strategy towards the area of Nazlet El-Semman, which according to the vision document is “an illegal informal settlement which is unplanned” is to develop by “regulating properties and enabling security of tenure within these areas based on detailed development plan” Hefnawi 2010). As part of Cairo 2050, plans for Nazlet El-Semman are similarly highly ambitious envisioning the neighborhood as monofunctional area serving mainly the tourists and the interests of the investors” (ETH Studio Basel 2010). The future vision is to turn the neighborhood into an open museum together with the Pyramids’ Plateau to the west and the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) to the north, which is scheduled to be partially opened in 2018, to create an integrated touristic site. The aim to deal with the existing land uses and categorize the area into three zones. The first zone is that can be directly utilized for tourism and entertainment. The second zones is one which is readily qualified for hotel investment and residential. And last are the zones that can be turned into hotels and touristic zones in
the long term strategic plan. But the residents seem outside of the development plans. The Khufu Avenue and Plaza will require parts
of the area to be demolished where a string of new hotels and resorts overlooking the ancient site are to be developed.
The plan highlights “providing alternative housing units for inhabitants within same area or nearby or direct compensation based on consultation . . . [and] no eviction for affected groups before providing alternatives.” (Hefnawi 2010) However, seeing the context of the plan which was announced in 2008, Egypt was being administered by a government of businessmen and thus developmental interests were
Also, the history of the government’s strategies to evict the residents of Nazlet El-Semman and other informal areas, one becomes wary of such claims of guaranteed tenure security. Instead of directly expelling the residents, the government instead took steps that would eventually drive the residents to abandon their homes. A law has been passed prohibiting residents who live in the most archaeologically valuable
sites not only from building new homes but from renovating their existing houses. Once the buildings collapse or become unsafe to be inhabited, the residents will be forced to abandon them. In fact, several houses along the wall dividing the Pyramids’ plateau (a protected UNESCO site) and the residential area have collapsed and been abandoned by their residents. Thus, area has been declared as ‘unsafe’ by the
This strategy has been implemented by the Egyptian government in other areas of high economic interest as well. The most famous example would be the Maspero Triangle (Bulaq Abu Al Aela) that enjoys a prime location on the Nile which makes it an interest to developers. Although the Ministry for Housing claims that it plans to relocate the residents in the ‘same area’, some would be relocated as far as two kilometers away. The planners’ response is to provide some benefits through UNESCO, and provide alternative bazaars in the same touristic zone for the residents to keep working in them (General Organization of Physical Planning 2011).
Memory of Displacement
The government’s policies towards informal settlements have been guided by believing that informal areas, such as Nazlet El-Semman, are a problem that must be removed and that urban growth must be directed towards new settlements in the desert.
Such strategy has not been successful in the past. One example would be the relocation of residents of the informal settlement of Duweiqa in 2008 after a rockslide killed up to two hundred residents which resulted in a number of houses were marked unsafe by the government. The residents were relocated 40 kilometers away to Masaken Othman in the desert city of 6th of October. In the process, the residents
discovered that there were accompanying social and economic costs and as a result, some decided to return. This meant high transportation costs, which were previously cut down with the proximity of many informal settlements to the center of Cairo. In addition, relocated residents had to pay a reasonable amount of rent for their newer and smaller housing in contrast to their bigger homes which they had owned.
Moreover, the public housing has poor services such as unreliable source of water. Furthermore, unlike informal settlements, which provide the flexibility of unregulated zoning, new towns are designed with strict regulations segregating functions. This restricts residents from running informal businesses, including accommodating livestock, which many residents depend on for additional income, in the mostly residential
zoning. Such informal business sector makes up to forty percent of the job market in Egypt. Although around 210,000 units of public housing were built from 1982 to 2005, there is no surprise that occupation rates remain only around 50% (Sims 2010).
In addition to the costs mentioned above, the relocation process fails to take into account the hidden non-material costs such as loss or weakening of the social structure of informal settlements. Residents, for example, highly depend on their social connections for collective savings associations and money borrowing in case of emergencies. The other scenario would be to upgrade and develop current urban condition into high-end development with the remaining of the local residents in area. In this scenario, however, high social tension between
the original, low-income residents and richer and upper-middle class new comers would rise.
Community Participation, a solution?
Community participation involves all beneficiaries, including local residents, into the development process. In such engagement, citizens are given control over important “strategic choices, and the allocation of resources” to develop their own communities (Piffero 2009). An invitation-only meeting was conducted by GOPP and the Environment and Development Group (EDG) to assess the effects of the development plan on area. Representatives of several agencies such as UN-Habitat and concerned government sectors were present
but no local residents except some of the neighborhood’s influential families. According to TADAMUN, the meeting has failed to fulfill local engagement as those invited for the meeting represented a minority of the population. Moreover, the meeting lacked clarity in terms of its influence on the future plans. For instance, the Minister of Housing announced the formation of a committee to present the project plan
to the Cabinet which is distinct from GOPP and EDG’s meeting. In this sense, we can understand that such meetings are a mere “participatory façade” to legitimize the plans. Therefore legally binding mechanisms should be set for locals to guarantee their right to influence the future
development of their own neighborhoods.
Conclusion: The People or the Country?
The case of the development of Nazelt El-Semman is one of Cairo’s most controversial cases of developing informal settlements. The government is hoping to develop not only an urgently needed source of income to save the crumbling economy, but a powerful
image of a new ‘modern’ Egypt which is falsely presented in Cairo 2050, lacking the understanding of the economic and social conditions under which this plan is to take place. The dilemma here lies in what should be prioritized: the country’s economic benefits or residents’ tenure
security? Also, how long will the government’s solution for informal urban sprawl and unsafe housing be to simply erase them off our cities? And would that actually stop future urban sprawl from encroaching other areas of the city? I believe that it is important to consider the local residents of Nazlet El-Semman as an asset to any development plan of the Pyramids’ Area. A framework of a community participatory process should be developed obligating government to abide by outcomes of such development schemes.
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Written for Post-Industrial History and Theory Course taught by Prof. Noah Chasin.
Summer 2016. Columbia GSAPP. New York, NY.