Bearing in mind that there is very limited access to data and census in Egypt, according to estimates done by 10Tooba (10Bricks), a Cairo-based collective that does applied research on the built environment, 14 million households or 70 percent of all households in Egypt live without secure tenures. In comparison, some 150 million migrant workers live in major metropolitan cities in China for the better part of the year, escaping the threat of insecure tenures back in their hometowns.

By definition, security of tenures is a legal protection afforded to tenants of dwelling houses – usually under a rent act – against arbitrary rent increases and landlords’ attempts to repossess the property through eviction, or for employees in certain professions – such as teaching – against summary dismissal without just cause. 10Tooba researchers argue that, in the end, the lax and arbitrary enforcement of the rule of law in Egyptian cities has allowed informal tenure to become the norm.

secure tenures

Courtesy of 10Tooba

Tenure insecurity is an inevitable outcome of tenure informality, which happens when housing units are informally built. So far, the majority of units lacking secure tenures in Egypt are informally built on private agricultural land that has been illegally subdivided and urbanized. According to the researchers’ observations, most people build housing informally due to the lack of an affordable and appropriate alternative.

This is in spite of the New Cities, better known as the New Urban Communities (NUCs), that the state has been building over the last four decades – a campaign that was first initiated by late Egyptian President Mohamed Anwar El-Sadat in the mid-1970s. New Cities do offer the bulk of formal serviced land, however, the annual rate of provision has been almost a quarter of the amount of private agricultural land being informally urbanized.

Almost half of Cairo's housing units lack secure tenures.

Two of Cairo’s young dwellers walk down a lane in Old Fatimid Cairo. CC: David Evers

Within the metropolis of Greater Cairo, the two governorates with agricultural land, Giza and Qalyoubia, had much higher rates of informal and insecure tenures, 84 percent and 83 percent respectively, in comparison to 47 percent in largely urban Cairo.

This high rate of informality and resultant insecurity when it comes to tenure is perhaps best captured in the attempted forced (and armed) eviction of the leafy island of Al-Warraq in Giza, which is home to around 90,000 islanders. The attempted eviction was met with strong protest, especially after one islander died and 20 others were arrested. It ended when security forces withdrew, and later, Giza’s chief of security met with the family leaders of Al-Warraq to reconcile.

Yahia Shawkat, one of the 10Tooba researchers who authored the report on secure tenures, argues that engaging the community should start from the beginning; “Not after the murder of one, the arrest of 20, and the tearing down of their homes, [the government] invites them over to talk,” Shawkat tells progrss. He explains that articles 11 and 12 on local plans in the newest Construction Law puts the involvement and engagement of public participation as a condition to the process of urban replanning. The framework identifies public participation in terms of Local Popular Councils, civil society, and residents.

Article 24 on replanning existing areas states that the government represented in the Ministry of Housing and Urban Planning should negotiate with existing owners over the replanning scheme. Article 25 on planning unplanned areas (such as slums and informal settlements) states that the government should cooperate with Local Popular Councils, civil society, and residents to select and prioritize development projects, as well as to negotiate with owners on the replanning.

“There have actually been urban plans in Damanhour and Koum Hamada that have been ruled to be illegal, although planned by the Ministry of Housing, due to the absence of community participation,” Shawkat says. “So even the provisions in the legal framework – [which] is also flawed – are not being applied. Even if applied, I see that it is the least that can be done.” The urban researcher argues that, because the body in which the community is represented, which is based on selection rather than elections, isn’t actually very representative since it fails to account for the community’s interests and needs.

The majority of housing lacking secure tenures in the country are in the the rural “land-locked” governorates of the northern cities located at the Nile Delta, which do not have vacant desert land. According to 10Tooba’s report, 93 percent of houses in Gharbia are informal and therefore lack secure tenures, while Damietta has 56 percent informal housing.

In contrast, southern cities in the largely rural Upper Egypt which have access to desert land suffer from informal tenure ranging between 51 percent in Luxor in the south to 79 percent in El Fayoum. Frontier desert cities suffer from relatively low percentages of informal and insecure tenures – between eight percent in South Sinai and 28 percent in north-coastal Marsa Matruh.

On the other hand, in overpopulated Cairo, slums double the trouble for their residents. Residents of Cairo slums lack proper infrastructure, services, and sometimes secure tenures, but are also plagued with the social stigma of marginalization and social isolation associated with living or having relatives living in slums. Residents pay this as a price for the advantages of being centrally located in the capital and being well-connected to sources of employment and livelihood.

However, there are also other kinds of informal housing that don’t necessarily need to be in an informal settlement or slum. According to a 2014 report titled “Egypt’s Strategy for Dealing with Slums,” rental and in-kind use of units are also largely informal. These are units offered by verbal contracts outlining the in-kind use of rooms by doormen, for example. Also, doormen often offer rooms for rent on rooftops or basements, keeping them out of sight of absent landlords; naturally, these informal rentals do not come with any kind of secure tenure.

In 2003, UN-Habitat’s “Global Campaign for Secure Tenure” launched to recognize slum dwellers and their organizations as partners in their campaign, and sought to promote their partnership with government as an essential tool for effective planning upgrading and for city management at large. The campaign encourages negotiation as an alternative to forced eviction, and the establishment of systems of tenure that minimize bureaucratic lags and the displacement of the urban poor by market forces.

Nonetheless, even those who live in formally built units are not safe. Formal and secure tenures may fall into informality and insecurity over time. According to a 1998 study by the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies (ECES), formal registration of property in Egypt is often not sought. This is mostly because of complex and protracted steps to register property, which can include some 77 bureaucratic procedures and take between six to 14 years to complete. Adding to the struggle, costs of registration are high, and as decades pass by through the lengthy procedures, inheritance often complicates property ownership and gives rise to more conflicts.

One of the fruits of the January 25 Revolution of 2011 that toppled the 30-year-old presidency of Hosni Mubarak, the 2012 Constitution, upholds human and housing rights and holds the state responsible for protecting them. These rights include the right to a healthy environment in Article 63 and the right to “appropriate” housing and clean water in Article 78. Article 78 reads: “The State adopts a National Housing Plan that is based on social justice and encourages local initiatives.”

Some experts believe that the main factor hindering the country’s efforts to overcome the informal housing situation is the centralization of authorities and services in the capital, Cairo. To overcome this, the 2012 Constitution outlines a shift to decentralization within ten years from its drafting, along with corresponding reforms in local administrative systems that will enable local authorities to play stronger and more efficient roles in slum development programs in their cities. However, these plans have not received enough support to proceed, given the fragility of the institutional setup due to frequent change of leadership positions, and political and economic instability in the country following 2011.