Cairo’s poor aren’t sure how they fit in with redevelopment plans

He kills the rats at night.

They squirm through hillside garbage and nose around the threshold of his house. He wants to escape but he sees only slums, a vast empire of crumbling brick and tangled kites, filled with faces just like his. He had imagined a better life.

“How long will it take for the government to make things better?” asked Eweis Hassanein, a day laborer with three children and a leaky roof. “Government people come and snap pictures. Then they leave.”

Hassanein’s Cairo is a logic-defying patchwork of ancient mystique, air the color of mustard and shantytowns that have become sequestered worlds of desperation. It is a capital of narrow wealth and widespread poverty echoing with the hollers of junkmen and footsteps chasing battered buses through the summer heat. From Hassanein’s hilltop perch, the city spreads like a wild vine at the desert’s edge.

How to tame it?

Mustafa Madbouli is a man of blueprints and grand schemes. The director of the nation’s urban planning office, he’s trying to eliminate slums and impose building codes and order. The task collides with the clamorous Egyptian soul and a landscape of slumping buildings, dangerous electrical wiring, pooling sewage and zigzagging roads that mock the taut precision of the pyramids rising in the distance.

“For 7,000 years, since the days of the pharaohs, no Egyptian building was planned. It was all left to the people to decide,” said Madbouli, sitting in his office on a street of flaking facades leading to the Nile. “Redesigning it all now is much more difficult than starting from scratch.”

The city’s slums and “unplanned areas,” a euphemism for illegal development, accelerated in the 1960s when villagers from the Nile Delta and southern Egypt poured into Cairo with toolboxes and dreams. Like Hassanein, they staked a patch of earth, didn’t bother to find out who owned it, stacked bricks and hammered up a house. The desert around Cairo shrunk beneath hanging laundry, alley markets and fix-it shops. Electricity was pirated, water hauled in by donkey and bicycle.

About one-third of the city’s population of 18 million lives in slums and illegally built neighborhoods often allowed by officials taking kickbacks. The government didn’t focus on these pockets until the 1990s, when radical Islamists trolled their dirt streets for recruits. Power lines, water mains and roads were built, but with the nation falling deeper into poverty, the state did not provide enough schools, clinics and other institutions.

A brisk talker with silver-rimmed glasses, Madbouli has the look of a man late for his next appointment. He’s open about his country’s problems and resolute about solving them. He scans satellite photographs, pinpointing cities and gray grids of slums. What the pictures don’t show are joblessness and illiteracy, but Madbouli said if you fix a person’s surroundings, you can fix his life.

“We’ve gradually started to build trust with people,” he said.

In Cairo’s north Giza neighborhood, for example, the government will build 40 schools, one hospital and 12 clinics for 900,000 people. Other neighborhoods, such as Hassanein’s slum in the Douaiqa district, where a rock slide in 2008 killed more than 200 shanty dwellers and forced the state to improve housing conditions nationwide, will be demolished and families moved to new housing in satellite cities.

The Housing Ministry expects to have comprehensive development plans for Cairo and 226 other cities by 2012. The goal is as ambitious as it is controversial, amounting to, in Cairo’s case, reconfiguring an ancient capital to reflect the aspirations of a new era. The concern, however, is that the city’s remaking will turn into an exercise in reshuffling the poor to the fringes to benefit developers and the rich.

“No project of this kind will succeed under the current regime. It is the same with many other projects they have started before only to promote themselves and create propaganda,” said Mamdouh Hamza, a prominent engineer and former advisor on the anti-slum program. “It is an impossible task to get rid of all slums the way the government is planning. The best solution would be first to prevent the spreading of any further slums, then to develop the existing slums from the inside rather than tearing them down.”

A speck of a man in a pale tunic, Hassanein answered a knock at his shadowed doorway, his wife and two of his children sitting around him, shooing flies and pointing to trash blowing over the hillside. Nearly two years ago, the earth shook around their home as limestone boulders crashed from the cliffs. Many families in the slum have since been moved, but no such letter has been sent to Hassanein’s three-room house, built in pieces over time.

“We’d love to get out of here,” he said. “It’s not safe anymore.”

He left his childhood home in Fayoum a quarter-century ago, setting out for Cairo where he was told laborers made big money. He followed welders, garbage men and bricklayers and helped build slums, one after the other. The shacks remain but the good money is gone; Hassanein’s lucky if he works two days a week, earning a total of less than $9, not enough to patch his roof, fix the cracks in his ceiling.

He grabbed his cane and went for a stroll. There was no hurry; an idle man learns how to outsmart the hours. A woman cleaned vegetables on a stoop and young men smelling of splashed water and soap walked through the litter and down the hill, looking for a bus to take them somewhere.

Prosperity is like a match to gasoline, burning bright for an instant, then vanishing. Distrust of the government lasts much longer. Hassanein came upon neighbor Mohammed Osman, who once lived in a shantytown near the spice bazaars; the government forced him out to make room for tourists and he settled on these brittle cliffs geologists say should never have been built upon.

“The government told me I’d be here only six months. That was 13 years ago,” Osman said. “I’m still waiting to be moved to a nice place.”

Hassanein walked toward Sayeda Okasha’s house. A boy selling propane gas canisters passed, causing chickens to scurry and drawing mothers to windows. Okasha fixed her hijab and did not linger beyond the shade. She hasn’t been well since her husband left and her breathing turned bad. She told Hassanein she worries about thieves and trash but said: “I grew up here. This slum just kept expanding. I don’t know if I should move. People know how poor I am. I live on their charity. If I left, maybe they wouldn’t be able to find me.”

Hassanein strolled on and stood with Osman on the hill. Hassanein looked down over plastic bottles and blackened rooftops. Osman glanced up to the ridge toward a new cream-colored building trimmed in bright white with red tile. It looked like a rich man’s villa in the smog. The neighborhood had been curious why anyone would build something so nice near a slum.

Maybe their luck had changed. A few of the shanty dwellers walked over to the building and stood at its gate. They were told it was a youth recreation center with a soccer field. No, they couldn’t use it. It was for the children of government and military employees. Membership required.

Amro Hassan of The Times’ Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.