Yahia Shawkat, Egypt’s Housing Crisis: The Shaping of Urban Space (The American University in Cairo Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Yahia Shawkat (YS): Ever since I can remember, there has been a housing crisis in Egypt in one form or another. Now, many cities all over the world go through housing crises and, for some, they end. Egyptian film has portrayed the housing crisis as a main plot almost non-stop between the 1960s and the 1980s, with the subject continuing on in various guises. What surprised me when I dug deeper was how official rhetoric—from government officials, parliamentarians, all the way up to presidents—mentioned it. Through this time, language was carefully chosen, using the then popular “housing problem” in the early 1950s, before moving on to the “housing crisis” within that decade, and then reverting back to the “housing problem” in the mid-1970s until this day. Film and news on the other hand, have stuck with “housing crisis.” Here, I felt that the “housing crisis” was a story that needed to be written as such. I felt that this should be in a form that speaks to a wider audience, rather than the reports or policy notes that I am more used to writing.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

YS: In Egypt’s Housing Crisis, I try to present the spectrum of how people access homes. In the beginning of this project, I mainly looked at renting and buying, but I quickly found out that self-building is the main method of making a home in Egypt, while over the years housing provided by employers or as social welfare have waxed and waned. Within this main narrative of housing access, the book looks at different dimensions of these methods: the policies, politics, and social demands behind them.

And since nothing just happens to be, but is the product of a trajectory of events, I needed to dig into history. For instance, serious steps to build public or social housing started to be taken in the 1940s after a few decades of half-hearted attempts. Most literature on housing on the other hand starts with 1952, the birth of the Socialist era. For government intervention in villages, and arguably the forerunner to modern urban planning, I had to go all the way back to the 1840s.

Readers will get an overall impression of housing in Egypt over the last century or so, with case studies on rent, informalization, and government housing.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

YS: In one way, my book builds on my usual method of using both qualitative and quantitative data to analyze housing. For example, in past articles I have written or edited on the Built Environment Observatory, to work out or explain how housing is becoming more unaffordable, I gather housing price data, read laws on real estate, and speak with people that are looking for a home.

With this book, however, I had the time and the writing space not afforded to generally short and real-time articles to explore the history of housing by looking at the development of policies over decades instead of years. There is a trove of primary sources out there that very few people have touched, at least those researching housing. For example, I was able to find many speeches and writings for Gamal Abdel Nasser on the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Archive that mentioned his views on housing in much detail. There were even once-private government documents such as cabinet and committee minutes that showed candid views and debates on rent and social housing. Similar documents for later presidents are not available, which means that the book may be a bit unfair on Nasser.

And while I am used to reading through statistics, it was quite an adventure digging up more historic data on housing, such as tenure—renting versus buying and self-building, for example—which, compared to most countries, covers a relatively recent period from the 1960s and 70s. Here, the statistics helped give an idea of whether government promises were kept and whether plans succeeded.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

YS: Anyone that has built, bought, or rented a home in Egypt will probably find something in this book that they can relate to. Maybe this will help them see what they have been through—and I can bet they have been through one mishap or another—in a wider context. The problems discussed in my book are not one-off problems, but they affect people across the board. I would hope it starts a conversation that can lead to meaningful solutions.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

YS: I am continuing work on the Built Environment Observatory, and I hope to start working on investigating the myth of property as an investment. 

J: What does the picture on the book cover represent?

YS: Once upon a time I was big on photography, and even freelanced shooting architecture. I also worked on some of my own projects and built up a photo library of housing and many places in Egypt. But I struggled to find a non-cliched image that can complement the book’s title; most photographs did not have people in them—a hangover from my architect days. Then I found this one that I took about ten years ago on the Cairo ringroad, with a man tending to a significant bird collection on his balcony. His building also represents a “typical” self-built family home, standing in the shadow of a higher informal “tower” built by developers as an investment. For me, the photograph captures many topics of the housing crisis: self-building, informalization, and the commodification of housing.


Excerpt from the book

Introduction: The Politics of Shelter in Egypt

Housing is a fundamental cornerstone of Egyptian life: It can make or break marriage proposals, boom or bust the economy, and popularize or embarrass a ruler. It is debated as much as football and religion. Egypt’s airwaves regularly beam footage of neat government housing and chaotic self-built settlements. Facebook is chock-full of people seeking buying advice, complaining about delayed housing projects, and protesting eviction, rent control, or a new development.

Housing is social. It is the cradle that shelters people’s lives, with an entire spectrum of responses having evolved to suit the means of millions of households. Communities have mobilized to self-build, with construction completely managed by the owner down to the last detail. Other people buy their own homes, while only one-quarter of urban Egyptians rent. Those who cannot afford to build, buy, or rent are compelled to squat, some in cemetery courtyards and vacant government-built housing.

Housing is money. Buying is seen as the most effective way to invest your hard-earned cash, where local and foreign investors, as well as speculators, have taken advantage of a deregulated property market to make what they believe is a guaranteed return. The construction sector is one of the largest industries in Egypt today, employing millions. However, this deregulation by the government has also resulted in an inexorable erosion of affordability, with over half of Egyptians unable to afford median-priced homes, and millions forced to live in inadequate shelter.

Housing is political. Almost every Egyptian ruler over the last nine decades, from King Fu’ad to President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, has directly associated himself with at least one large-scale housing project. In other words, housing has transcended a whole range of political ideologies—from colonial to neoliberal regimes. Publicly owned housing agencies invest billions every year to build subsidized and for-profit housing. In many instances, government housing has been used as a tool to rally political support or demobilize social unrest—Advertisements for social housing would spontaneously appear in the newspapers during elections, or whenever the streets would tremble with protest.

Housing is also contentious. While most people associate a home with stability, it is only so for some people, some of the time. Millions of mostly poor, but also middle-income families, live in a state of legal or physical precarity. Those seen by the government as living in informal housing face a constant threat of eviction, and tens of thousands of families have been evicted to make way for urban development projects, or because their buildings were deemed illegal and demolished. Almost one million families live with the threat of imminent disaster, with hundreds of buildings collapsing every year—many of which are damaged, left to decay, or even tampered with on purpose to allow landlords to evict rent control tenants, while the rest are shoddily constructed by unscrupulous developers.

Egypt’s Housing Crisis delves into this multilayered world, tracing an almost perpetual housing crisis in Egypt. It explores the shift in official discourse over the last eight decades, from an issue of ‘homes’ to ‘housing,’ and from a ‘problem’ to a ‘crisis’ and back to a ‘problem’ again. While this shift in language may have happened quietly, it belies how officials in Egypt changed their view of dwellings over the last century.

An Overview

Egypt’s Housing Crisis provides an urban history of housing in Egypt over the course of eighty years. It does so through a reading of the main policy elements the government has used to shape housing supply during this time: regulation and provision. Chapters 2 and 3 trace how laws have been enacted to regulate the use of private property—through the self-build process and through the rental market and, briefly, the sales market. Chapters 4, 5, and 6 cover provision in both rural and urban settings. The final chapter shows how all forms of housing have simply unraveled, weighed down by decades of regressive policies that have only been propped up to serve particular interests. Egypt’s Housing Crisis need not be read in any particular order, as each chapter is a standalone essay.

Chapter 1 (Etymology of a Crisis) provides a brief politico-statistical history of housing in Egypt, tracing official discourse from the 1940s to the present, providing the book’s backbone, from which the reader can then branch off directly to the chapters that provide more detail. It starts by outlining the history of the discourse around housing, and then adds statistical background on housing production from the 1960s, as well as tenure patterns from the 1970s onward.

Chapter 2 (Self-builders) looks at the most popular avenue to housing. While most owners do not do the actual building themselves, this chapter details how they acquire the land, design their homes, and manage the entire building process. Chapter 2 also discusses how, despite a raft of laws outlawing many of the self-built homes, along with squatting on state-owned land, the government has de facto tolerated the practice since 1957. This was through a host of amnesties with the goal of helping to ease the homes crisis and even the extension of formal infrastructure to most settlements, but in exchange for what?

Chapter 3 (Old to New Rent) chronicles changes in rent legislation from the 1940s through the 1990s, and the major effects this has had on housing. Old Rent, which is Egypt’s special blend of rent control—introduced under a colonial regime, bolstered during a socialist one, and maintained through neoliberal times—has been especially contentious. Many landlords have sought to evict tenants by condemning buildings and sometimes fatal actions that include deliberately knocking them down. Its ambiguity has also led to cases of massive fraud. The chapter then details the introduction of New Rent (market rent) in the neoliberal 1990s, with its promise to liberate vacant property and solve the housing problem. Initially it may have helped, but today, almost half of Egyptians cannot afford median rents. Meanwhile, over a million homes are still under Old Rent with growing, anxious demands from landlords to get their properties back.

Erving Goffman’s concept of a ‘total institution’ helps explain some of chapter 4 (‘Model’ Villages for ‘Model’ Citizens).This chapter investigates how the government sought to control the rural population between the mid-nineteenth century and the end of the twentieth century. The first section of the chapter looks at ‘izbas, private hamlets that were located on large landowners’ estates, which came to house a considerable portion of the population who were ruled by proxy between the 1840s and 1952. The chapter goes on to chronicle the ‘model village’ movement of the 1930s and 1940s, whereby the government, as well as private enterprise, aimed to reconstruct rural housing and remold people into ‘model citizens.’ The movement would also set the stage for later forms of mass rural housing, the New Villages, popularized during the Arab socialist era (1952–70), resettling tens of thousands of people on desert land reclamation schemes in ‘model societies.’ The chapter concludes with the demise of rural population control through government villages by the end of the millennium, to be replaced by a resurgence of private agricultural workers’ camps—a rebirth of the ‘izba.

The story of chapter 5 (Government Housing, a Brief History) is the evolution of urban mass housing over the last century—tracing its origins from the musta‘marat (workers’ colonies) and company towns built by private industry from the 1920s, through their popularization in the 1940s, and their transformation into government housing estates in the 1950s to solve the housing crisis. Egypt’s rulers have associated themselves with mass housing, something that has made it more political than pragmatic, where the uniformity of the housing blocks belies myriad tenure options, and application regimes that changed as the politics did. The chapter concludes with the final major transformation of mass government housing in the late 1970s, from renting to ownership, or from a political social provision to a political commodity, a policy that has remained in place until today.

Chapter 6 (Government Housing Today) takes an in-depth look at current mass urban housing through two of the largest schemes in its history—Mubarak’s National Housing Project, initiated as part of his election campaign in 2005, and the million-unit Social Housing Project, born amid the 2011 uprising that toppled him.

The seventh and final chapter (Housing Unravels) delves into the spectrum of informality that pervades not just self-build, but all other housing in Egypt. It examines a number of cases, some that converge from previous chapters on self-build, rent, and government housing, and others that are about state-led gentrification. All are about one form of informal tenure or another, in a climate that looks increasingly like a manufactured informality, and a bureaucratic regime that is structured so that dwellers across the income spectrum rarely have secure and stable tenure.