Deen Sharp
Last updated: 20 June, 2012

The Right to Housing in Egypt

Have you heard about the right to housing? It is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care …”.

In Egypt the ubiquitous self-built house dominates the built environment. The near-perpetual construction of these self-build units and their iconic exposed bricks are powerful symbols of how the state in Egypt has withdrawn increasingly over the past four decades and the urban poor have been left to their own devices to provide the requisite housing. The state only intervenes when the urban poor get in the way.

“The first day the military police came, and the Ministry of Interior, they raided us out of the blue, at 6am,” a local man in an informal area of Cairo reports in the video the ‘Right to Housing’ by architect and urban activist Yahia Shawkat. “Breaking, breaking, breaking, breaking…they just kept demolishing everything… without a word.” The video shows clips of the destruction wrought by the military police, buildings destroyed with the belongings of residents broken amongst the ruble. “As if we are in Gaza,” a local says before lighting a cigarette.

The first video of the ‘Right to Housing’ series – in a series of ten that are to be released in the coming months – begins by asking those in poor urban areas if they have heard of the right to housing. “Of course,” the first resident replies, “But from where?  Who will allow me to obtain this ?”. These are exactly the question that Shawkat wants urban residents to ask.

As the momentum of the Egyptian revolution stumbles in the face of the current counter-revolution, and amid accusations that the revolutionaries have no clear agenda for moving beyond the removal of Mubarak, initiatives such as ‘The Right to Housing’ video series are critical. “I am trying to get to the core of what local municipalities are responsible for,” Shawkat stated. “The performance of local government is a real problem, they do not have the capacity to perform their duties and most are appointed and not elected.” Shawkat went on to explain that his initiative is an attempt to get people talking about their built environment and to make concrete claims to the local government to fulfill their obligations to their citizens. This is an activism that encourages people to confront the state from the bottom up.

The power of such questions and demands becomes clear as the video progresses. In attempting to uphold the ‘right to housing,’ a larger claim is automatically made to the ‘right to the city’ and this in turn seeps into a greater claim to demands to a right to a state that serves its inhabitants and not the vice versa.

The ‘right to the city’ was a radical idea introduced by French urbanist Henri Lefebvre in 1967. The neoliberal reforms of the 1980s and 1990s resulted in the continued relevance of this idea and all around the world social movements have been formed around the idea of the ‘right to the city’. In Brazil activist groups succeeded in inserting the ‘right to the city’ in the constitution in 2001.

The core idea of the right to the city is to disrupt established notions of who gets to shape the city. The city should not only be dictated by the demands of financial capital and state elites but by all those who inhabit the city, it is they who have the right to the city. In Egypt, the government has attempted to force the urban poor out of the city into new satellite cities or into certain spatial formations with little or no dialogue with residents. The urban poor in Egypt are been treated as objects not subjects, by the Egyptian state authorities.

Indeed, the ‘Right to Housing’ series gets to the core of the reason for the Egyptian uprising and offers a model of mobilization for ordinary citizens to organize around. Power rests in the presence and absence of homes, streets, electricity lines, sewer systems, and gas canisters. It is the utilization of these for socio-political mobilization that will halt and invert the antiquated logic that the ‘strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.’